Books Special: Why everything you know about advertising may be wrong

In the Honest Persuaders, ex-ad man John Bunyard claims neuroscience is proving that most advertisers are barking up the wrong tree....

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
This is a provocative book. Bunyard, an old-school ad man turned heretic, argues that there's a fundamental problem with the industry: that its obsession with brand and propensity for hyperbole is not only ineffective (i.e. it doesn't actually make people buy stuff) but also downright damaging, in that it erodes the trust between brand and consumer. The problem, he argues, comes down to a misconception of how and why we buy things. And he reckons the answer lies in brain science...

If you work in the industry, you might recognise Bunyard's name; his major professional achievement (with the exception, we'd argue, of the classic Bertie Bassett campaign for liquorice allsorts) was the development of a system called FAST Marketing (the acronym stands for 'Focused Advertising/ Sampling Technique'). An early variant of what's now generally known as experiential marketing (Bunyard says he actually came up with that name, but it was snaffled by some unscrupulous marketers across the pond), and used largely for consumer goods brands, the big idea was that the most effective way to market a product was to run a big ad campaign focused on the consumer experience, then immediately follow it up with a big in-store testing programme allowing the consumer to have said experience. When the two married up, the sales results were, Bunyard reports, much better than either of the two approaches could manage on their own. So in other words, he believed the key was for brands to deliver on the promises they make, because that's what make consumers trust them.

Although a linguist by education, Bunyard is clearly a frustrated scientist at heart. And since he got out of the ad agency world, he's used this interest to add some theoretical flesh to the experimental bones of his thesis. Specifically, he's developed an interest in neuroscience, which he believes can explain the sort of behaviour he witnessed during his FAST period. Brain experiments show, he says, that when we get confirmation of our expectation, we receive a dopamine boost (dopamine's a chemical released by the brain, which is thought to reinforce and encourage certain types of behaviour, including pleasurable activities like food, sex and drugs). By contrast, if someone fails to live up to expectations they've set, or even over-delivers, that doesn't happen.

One of Bunyard's biggest bugbears - and further testament to this scientific bent - is with the market research industry. We're not sufficiently well-versed on the subject to assess his critique here, but it basically boils down to this: market research is flawed because what we say about our preferences and intentions is fundamentally unreliable, precisely because it's filtered through our conscious mind and expressed through the imperfect medium of our vocabulary. In fact, Bunyard says, experiments show that much of our decision-making is done unconsciously, often via heuristics - the mental 'rules of thumb' that allow the brain to efficiently sift and process the huge amount of information with which it's constantly bombarded. So asking people what they're going to do is pointless, he says; the only reliable method is to measure their actual behaviour. That's what he did with FAST marketing; and now he believes that neuroscience has provided the theoretical justification.

There are two reasons why I think MT readers will like this book. One, it's a business book for grown-ups - so there are no facile titles, no bullet-points for the attention-challenged, no simplifying to the lowest common denominator. Yet for a book that's part marketing treatise, part neuroscience essay, it's surprisingly accessible; Bunyard has chosen to interweave his thesis with a narrative about how these ideas have developed over the course of his professional life, which prevents the book sliding into abstraction on the one hand, or self-aggrandisement on the other.

Two, it's admirably rational and evidence-based. There's no rhetoric or grand-standing or speculation; all the arguments are based on experimental data, which makes it more compelling. Perhaps advances in neuroscience or improvements in experimental techniques will prove Bunyard's theories to be bunkum. But he would have no complaint about that; that's science, after all, and he'd argue that we'd still be a little closer to the truth.

An admission: Bunyard is a long-time reader of this website. But although that may attest to his exceptional taste, that's not why I think you should read this book. You should read it because - unlike many business tomes - it'll make you think. You might not agree with all of it; you might not agree with any of it. But if nothing else, it should make you question some of your preconceptions about how and why your customers buy from you. And if that helps you to change their perceptions, and possibly even boost sales in the process, so much the better.

If you're interested, you can buy 'The Honest Persuaders' here.

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