People Don’t Buy From Clowns
How does advertising work?
It may surprise you to learn that most marketers don’t really know.
It may surprise you to learn, marketer, that maybe you don’t really know either.
However, if you’re like the other 90% of B2B marketers, then you probably think advertising works via the “hard sell,” or what we’ll call “persuasion.”
After all, it is plausible that an effective ad works by doing such a compelling job explaining a product’s benefits that buyers are persuaded to buy the product. In the persuasion model, advertising works a lot like sales, where a compelling argument moves buyers down the sales funnel to purchase. According to LinkedIn data, this is how roughly 90% of B2B marketers structure campaigns and invest money, so you are not alone if you subscribe to the persuasion model.
It isn’t surprising most marketers believe in the persuasion model given its the long, deep, and influential roots in the advertising family tree.
Persuasion: People Don’t Buy From Clowns
In 1904, a young man named John E. Kennedy walked into a street-level saloon in Chicago just below one of the biggest advertising firms of the day, Lord & Thomas.
Kennedy had just sent a note upstairs to CEO Ambrose Thomas that read:
I am in the saloon downstairs. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word ‘yes’ down by the bell boy. Signed, John E. Kennedy.
It is ironic that John E. Kennedy’s career began with such a wonderful bit of showmanship because it was his firm belief, as he would share with the man who came downstairs, Albert Lasker, that advertising was nothing more than “salesmanship in print.”
Kennedy’s “salesmanship in print” tagline is one of the most influential ideas in advertising history even to this day, influencing the following advertising giants:
- First father of advertising, Albert Lasker
- The author of 1923 classic, Scientific Advertising, Claude Hopkins
- The creator of Unique Selling Proposition (USP), Rosser Reeves
- The second father of advertising, David Ogilvy
For more than 120 years, these four gentlemen have made persuasion the most widely practiced – and most broadly accepted -- model for how advertising works. Advertising is sales, advertising is science, advertising is serious.
But what if advertising isn’t just sales and science and serious?
Publicity: People Do Buy From Clowns
Before 1904, there was a competing model on how advertising worked: publicity.
There was no better advocate for the publicity model than legendary promoter and showman, P.T. Barnum. Barnum became, arguably, the most famous American of the 1800s by investing aggressively in mass advertising and public stunts. Barnum, who was one of the biggest advertisers in the nation, would offer as business advice in one of his books that “without promotion, something terrible happens: nothing.”
Based on the wild success of his advertising exploits, Barnum was dubbed the "Shakespeare of Advertising," and he parlayed his fame into a storied career as a showman, businessman, and politician. In many ways, Barnum is the true father of advertising, having pioneered many ideas that were copied by the two biggest corporate advertisers in 1890s America: Quaker Oats and Coca-Cola. Barnum felt “nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd” and, the way to draw a crowd, was to talk to as many people as possible – the job of marketing – and not to talk to as few people as possible – the job of sales.
Barnum, of course, did not subscribe to the “salesmanship in print” model Kennedy & Lasker would popularize, instead investing in the “showmanship in public” model that had made him so famous.
Well, How Does Advertising Work?
Having laid out the competing models, we can return to the original question:
“how does advertising work?”
To explain how advertising works, we must revisit 1902 and talk about Force Cereal, the first commercially successful cereal in U.S. history. The mismanagement of Force Cereal represents one of the earliest “natural experiments” in advertising history and helps to adjudicate on the persuasion vs. publicity debate.
The story of Force Cereal comes from the wonderful book Why Does The Pedlar Sing by Paul Feldwick, one of the grand historians of advertising. Feldwick explains how Force Cereal hired two young creatives, copywriter Minnie Maude Hanff and, illustrator, Dorothy Ficken, to create jingles and illustrations for an upcoming advertising campaign. The women created a campaign featuring an old pigtailed character with a walking cane named Sunny Jim, who became so immediately famous that Printers' Ink, the leading advertising trade magazine of the day, would write:
No current novel or play is so universally popular. [Sunny Jim] is as well known as President Roosevelt or J. Pierpont Morgan.
The campaign was pure promotion and publicity; after all, what does an old pigtailed man with a walking cane have to do with breakfast cereal? It is worth remembering that advertising doesn’t always have to make sense, the primary job of an ad is to be memorable, not necessarily to be sensible. After all, people can only buy what they remember, and, in part, sales exploded because famous Sunny Jim was what people remembered when they wanted breakfast.
However, the success of Force Cereal emboldened its owner, Edward Ellsworth, to bring another cereal called H-O Oats to market. While interviewing ad agencies for H-O Oats, Ellsworth decided to turn over all his creative and media budgets to a new agency which would handle his growing business. As Feldwick explains in Why Does The Pedlar Sing?:
[the agency] soon made major changes to the Sunny Jim campaign. Out went the amusing rhymes and Dorothy Ficken’s innocent drawings. A new style of illustration reinvented Sunny Jim as a weird figure with an egg-shaped head, while solid blocks of prose lectured the reader on a mixture of nutrition and ‘positive thinking’, always ending with the words ‘Be Sunny!’
But Calkins’s revised version of Sunny Jim failed to maintain the momentum of the business - the agency was fired (Calkins later claiming that Ellsworth failed to pay them what he owed), and the campaign discontinued. All this happened just as Kellogg’s was beginning to advertise Corn Flakes nationally for the first time, and C. W. Post was launching Post Toasties – both heavily advertised brands and, arguably, superior products.
The decision to bring in a new agency was set against the backdrop of broader changes in the advertising industry: professionalization. The Force Cereal decision was made at the same time Lasker and Kennedy first achieved breakthrough success with the “salesmanship in print” model. The professionalization of advertising led to rampant elitism – companies needed male “professionals,” not creative women, and more than that, companies needed serious salesmanship not silly showmanship based on characters and jingles. In his memoir, Calkins admitted as much, saying:
The advertising absolutely sold Sunny Jim to the public, but it did not sell Force. Humor, you see, is a very good servant but a bad master.
Calkins was not the only leading voice to suggest that Sunny Jim had been a failure; G.H.E Hawkins would also write in an influential 1914 book on newspaper advertising:
He was a national character while he existed, but the trouble was there wasn’t enough connection between ‘Sunny Jim’ and the product.
However, is it true that the Sunny Jim advertising “did not sell Force”?
Fascinatingly, we have the answer because Force was sold not only in the U.S., but also in the U.K. as well. And in the U.K., the brand made no changes to its Sunny Jim campaign, instead keeping the Sunny Jim publicity campaign created by Hanff and Ficken. Thus, we have a “natural experiment” to help settle the persuasion vs. publicity debate.
And what exactly does the natural experiment show?
In the U.K., both Force and Sunny Jim continued to explode in popularity. By the end of the 1920s, Force was selling 12.5 million boxes of cereal annually and roughly 250,000 Sunny Jim dolls had been sold. In fact, Force – with Sunny Jim on its packages – continued to sell successfully for more than 100 years before folding in 2013.
The Force story has much to teach us today about how advertising stills works, and we ignore its lessons at our own peril.
First, there is now modern evidence – primarily from The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute – that advertising works mostly as Barnum intuited: publicity. In his excellent paper on The 95-5 Rule, Professor John Dawes, explains:
The way advertising ‘works’ isn’t by stimulating us to buy. How can it, if most people who see an ad aren’t going to buy the product for perhaps a year or more. Therefore, the way it works must principally be by building a memory link for the brand in buyers’ minds. And this memory link will be activated when the buyer does come into the market. Advertising impressions, accumulated over time, affect our memories. So, your advertising has to be designed to create distinct impressions about your brand in people’s minds - to be activated later.
Second, there is also modern evidence that powerful images – what Professor Jenni Romaniuk would call distinctive brand assets – are essential to being memorable and saleable. Barnum advertised Thom Thumb, Jumbo the Elephant, and Circus Clowns, intuitively understanding such characters were the “pegs on which the circus is hung.” One doesn’t need to squint too hard to see the seeds of Geico’s Gecko – maybe the most famous brand asset in the U.S. today – in Barnum’s early advertising.
In closing, what was true for Barnum is still true for marketers today:
- Make memorable creative
- Reach as big a crowd as possible
- Focus on entertaining and publicizing, not persuading
And importantly, the Barnum school of thought is not just for consumer marketing – we maintain that it holds true in B2B too. Two examples of brand activations that have brought Barnum to B2B are Salesforce’s Trailblazer characters, and IBM’s submission of Watson as a contestant on “Jeopardy!”.
Showmanship in public arouses our curiosity and wires our memories much more strongly and continuously than any “salesmanship in print.”
Put another way, showmanship sells better than salesmanship.
And people do buy from clowns.