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Advertising: Art or Science?

8 Dec, 2017 Alex Naylor Brand & Traditional Advertising

One Totally Biased Opinion

I can save you the time and effort if you’d like and give you the politically correct answer right now: it’s both. But ties are boring and nobody likes them. So I’ve dedicated the rest of the page here to finally and definitively declaring the real winner in this ever-raging battle happening inside every advertising agency in America — nay, the world.

Let’s begin by sizing up the competition. What exactly do we mean by art and science when it comes to advertising?

Science: Advertising based on data, research and market trends. It’s a more logical and rational approach that uses things such as features, benefits and incentives as a way to convince consumers to buy a product. It’s a reactive form of marketing.

Art: Advertising intended to garner an emotional response from its audience and make them feel some kind of connection with a product or brand. It’s a proactive form of marketing.

Now that we know what exactly what we’re debating, let’s duke it out.

The believers in a more scientific approach to advertising are typically ones who prefer certainty over risk-taking. They often rely on recent advancements in technology that allow us advertisers to target and track a consumer’s behavior in ways that were once reserved solely for works of dystopian fiction but now give us a treasure trove of data and information that we use to optimize our efforts based on the numbers we’re seeing and how we interpret them.

In a post-recession economy that’s especially wary of making mistakes, this approach is becoming more and more popular all the time — because data/science won’t allow you to make mistakes. It clearly lays out a singular path to success right in front of you. The problem is, all that data/science is telling everyone else to follow that path, too, creating a marketplace cluttered with repetitive, copy-cat ads that get old really fast. The result puts you smack dab in the middle of mediocracy. But at least you’ll have company, right?

Here’s a good place to pick up the argument for the artsy folks. Advertising based on art and creativity is where you’ll find new, innovative, original ads that break free of the afore mentioned clutter and allow you to connect with human beings on a deeper level than any charts and graphs can. Because creative ads cause consumers to react and to think, rather than simply consume. And yes, there is a bit of uncertainty that goes into this kind of advertising. And yes, there is always the possibility that airing on the side of art leaves too much room for interpretation. And yes, taking artistic risks can be scary. And yes, it breaks all the rules and isn’t nearly as simple or easy as just following the data.

However, there’s actually really good science to back it all up.

The limbic system, the part of the brain that’s responsible for decision-making, is also responsible for regulating our emotions. So those two things — emotions and decision-making — are connected. Using that logic, it would seem that if an ad’s main job is to persuade and influence people to make decisions (which it most definitely is), then it follows that in order to do that properly, we need to also affect their emotions. In other words, consumers make decisions emotionally. And there you have a sound logical argument as to why advertising shouldn’t be based on sound logical arguments at all. How’s that for a coup de gras?

All right, enough with all the theoretical debate. Let’s put this argument into practice.

Here’s how:

Simply evaluate these two old print ads from Apple. One falls into the “advertising based on science/data” category, and the other squarely into the “art” category. Which one do you think worked out better?

Advertising Art | Fluid Advertising     Advertising Art | Fluid Advertising

The final analysis:

Yes, you do need both art and science working together to create an effective ad, but they shouldn’t play equal roles. The hierarchy here is important to understand. The art should be your leading lady and always come first, with science and data being used as a support tool and trusty sidekick when needed — and never the other way around.


The writer of this blog works in the creative department at an advertising agency. Everything above was completely biased and written without the consent of the digital or strategy teams at said advertising agency. Sorry, guys.

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