How do we know what constitutes a good advertisement? Who can make such a decision and how?

Advertising is usually set among the creative industries and as such it is situated among the arts.  University courses in advertising are arts rather than science courses. This schism provides us with some insight into how we might evaluate ads.

Consider the arts perspective. The image, aesthetics, style and cultural impact are significant here. Like a painting, a good advert has cultural impact. It gets people talking.

Guinness knows this. Their television ads are both aesthetically impressive and impactful. They are designed to mesh perfectly with the meaning of the brand. A special type of person drinks Guinness. It’s a marque of intelligence, individuality, refinement. Almost like a fine whisky or fine wine.

Yet all the aesthetic sophistication in the world is inconsequential if the advert doesn’t sell the product.  Unlike the work of Anish Kapoor or Martin Creed, it’s not enough for an advert to only be appreciated by art connoisseurs. A good advertisement must have a wide-reaching appeal.

So if we turn to the science perspective, we can examine other evaluative measures. Does the advert enter the mind of the audience?  Does it draw attention to the product? Does it make people remember it and want to buy? Is it easy to recall? Does it stoke interest and grab attention?

Here there is less mystery. Here there is technique and technics. Psychology and propaganda rule for the advertising scientist. Aesthetics take a back seat while the crude annoying jingle echoes around the mind, infecting the unwilling soul.

Where the artist connects to pleasure and appreciation, the scientist is concerned with technique and effect. For the scientist the aesthetics are subordinate to psychology and cognitive science. The purpose of colour, movement, and semiotics is to trigger regions of the brain and is a process of strategic manipulation.

As such a ‘good’ advertisement can be brutal, crude and even aesthetically displeasing. Consider the Brand Power or Coles ads. The former is crude and the value of the latter is its capacity to annoy and infect.

The principle at work here is that of the song you don’t like but hear just before the radio is turned off and you enter the workplace. It’s that catchy chorus that pursues you through the day, haunting your every move.

Such instrumentality can synch with the reality of a product. In the UK, the Marmite brand used this to its advantage. The marketing company Adam & Eve / DDB realised people have a love-hate relationship with the product, so why not make the most of it?

And so Marmite’s ads focused on people who don’t like the product, with the wording on the brand being changed to ‘I Hate’.

Where conventional wisdom seeks the advertiser to cover up the negative, here we see the very reasonable insight that admitting dislike can entrench positive affirmation of a product. It’s pretty clever stuff. In this instance scientists win out and aesthetics is redundant.

Of course there is no catch-all rule. The imposition of do and don’t principles for advertisers is absurd, yet abound in the teaching of advertising. The point, however, is that there are no set rules. One good advert may be garish and blunt, another may be beautiful and sophisticated. One may soothe, and another may offend.

Does this mean that all is to be abandoned in a postmodern sludge of relativism? On the contrary, we can measure an advert in relation to its appropriateness to the product. A vulgar ad for Rolex is as bad as a sophisticated ad for Fosters.

A good ad is one that knows the particularity of its product and can address that in its advertising. Anything less is bad.