The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Is advertising art?

It is always surprising when credible research from two separate worlds, commerce and academia, strengthen one another.

In 2014, an IPA study called The Long and the Short of it; Balancing the short and long-term effects of marketing was published to huge acclaim. Based on 996 advertising effectiveness case histories over a 30-year period, three (of ten) key principles of advertising success that heartened us are ‘balance head and heart’, ‘creativity increases efficiency’ and ‘aim for fame’.

In parallel, a new and exciting field of enquiry pioneered by Professor Semir Zeki of the University of London came to our attention. It is called neuroaesthetics and is dedicated to exploring the neural processes underlying our appreciation of beautiful objects and artworks, experiences that include the mechanics of perception, the interpretation of what we ‘see’ and what we experience as awe-inspiring (in the sense of admire, enjoy, respect, appreciate).

The role of the brain is to gather information about objects, people and events that are in a constant state of flux. There are two laws of neurological perception: perceptual constancy and abstraction.

Perceptual constancy

A leaf in summer reflects different wavelengths of light depending on the conditions. But the brain cognitively moves from the particular to the general and we ‘see’ a green leaf. We ‘see’ a person whatever the angle of view and whatever the distance. In other words, we make mental representations that are constructed from multiple exposures; an active process that discounts many elements that are non-essential. This is perceptual constancy.

Abstraction is closely linked to constancy. Perhaps because our memory systems are so limited, the brain seeks to eliminate unnecessary detail and mentally represents the essence of an object, event or experience so it can be categorised. We ‘see’ a ‘dog’ irrespective of breed by identifying the essence of the animal.

According to Zeki, visual artwork closely parallels the function of our brains. Artists attempt to portray what they ‘see’ in the same way as a brain perceives. Picasso painted portraits (face looking sideways, forward, eyes at different levels, expressions ambiguous) to reflect a face as it really is, in the same way that the brain never sees objects from only one perspective, lighting condition or single facial expression. The impressionists painted light as it refracts under different conditions, not as mental representation of the same landscape. We get an emotional reward when we actively figure out a Picasso or a Seurat and this may be positive or negative. Either way it will be memorable.

Of particular interest to Zeki is an artist like Vermeer. He describes him as a technically brilliant artist painting very ordinary scenes such as a maid pouring milk or a lady writing. The fact that these paintings move so many people lies in their ‘psychological power’, namely ambiguity. Is the lady writing her grocery order or a letter to her mother or lover? Why does she look startled or is she simply thinking? Zeki defines ambiguity as constancy rather than vagueness. The painting captures many different possible truths (from a neurological perspective), all of which are valid.

What you may ask is the connection between famous artists and how they ‘see’ the world and advertising, communications, brands or research?

If we think of iconic advertising, such as the Cadbury’s Gorilla, Three’s DancePonyDance or John Lewis’ Snowman Journey, their psychological power and ability to ‘move us’ may have something to do with ambiguity as Zeki defines it — the possibility of multiple interpretations. We have to insert ourselves into the visual event and/or attempt to work it out; that is the source of its emotional power. It’s about relinquishing control as the brand owner and getting a more powerful emotional effect if you allow the viewer to collaborate in forming meaning.

Creative advertising challenge

This helps to explain why advertising creative development research is such a challenge. Collectively we aspire to co-produce work that has the psychological power to move people. An ‘artwork’, if you like, that will touch head and heart, achieve fame and through its creative merit be commercially effective. But truly great artworks and famous artists are few and far between. Instead there are many thousands of ‘jobbing artists’ making competent artworks that may not have the power to come to mind when asked about what we remember or admire.

Happily, the leading edge of market research is beginning to realise that putting creative work into a two-hour discussion and then making recommendations, based on the research participants’ reasoning, is not the way to create an art piece that moves us and which gets us to talk about it with others. Can you imagine Picasso doing that?

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in developing advertising. His now famous explanation of how our brains work: a constant negotiation between quick, effortless, emotional, intuitive responses (System 1) and slow, considered, effortful and reasoned responses (System 2) is generating new qualitative and quantitative methods that require those responsible for creating advertising to be as brave and committed to the idea at the core of the concept, as were Picasso, Monet, Jasper John or Andy Warhol. You do not create a work of art by hiding behind logical explanations.

Test yourself

So here are some questions to consider. You can only choose ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.

1) Are those responsible for signing off a new campaign or ad too timid?

2) Can traditional qualitative or quantitative (focus groups and
pre-tests) produce advertising that has the psychological power or fame
potential that the IPA study and Zeki have discovered?

3) Does ‘psychological power’ have to be positive?

4) Is ambiguity in advertising desirable?

5) Are you honest enough to admit that most of the time we are all jobbing artists and that’s OK?

We are not sure how you might answer these five questions but we show our answers after the references below.

References

Binet, L., and Field, P. (2013) The Long and the Short of it: Balancing the short and long-term effects of marketing. IPA

Chatterjee, A. (2010) Neuroaesthetics: A coming of age story. Retrieved from University of Pennsylvania website: [upenn.edu]

Zeki, S. (n.d) Statement on neuroaesthetics. Retrieved from the Neuroaesthetics.org website: [neuroaesthetics.org]

Zeki, S. (2001) Artistic creativity and the brain. Retrieved from the Sciencemag.org website: sciencemag.org]

Our own answers

1) Yes
2) No
3) No
4) Yes
5) Yes

 

Wendy Gordon
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2015