Advertising a sales tool that reflects art – and life

In a recent issue of The Financial Times of Canada, columnist Robert Fulford argues that the use of fine art images in advertisements is robbery.Fulford says advertising people 'don't seem to imagine that ethical issues might be involved.'In fact, they frequently...

In a recent issue of The Financial Times of Canada, columnist Robert Fulford argues that the use of fine art images in advertisements is robbery.

Fulford says advertising people ‘don’t seem to imagine that ethical issues might be involved.

‘In fact, they frequently give each other prizes for material that, in another line of work, might be regarded as outright plagiarism,’ he says.

Fulford concludes that robbery ‘should be identified as robbery, instead of being praised and rewarded as cleverness.’

The point that has been missed here – and it is a point that not too many people think about – is that almost all advertising is derivative. It has to be. It is not an art form. It is a sales tool.

Mirroring the age

Reflecting the times, mirroring the age, seizing upon trends, endlessly trying to make the sale, advertising has always been quick to appropriate, and make its own, the ideas of today or those of yesterday, if they work better.

Those ideas come not just from fine arts, but from all forms of communication.

Few, indeed, are the stories, themes, styles, images or techniques that advertising has not lifted from literature, adapted from art, filched from photography, mooched from music, begged, borrowed or stolen from radio, television and the movies.

Mode of learning

Appropriation, homage, mimetics, call it what you will, is not only the highest form of flattery, but a mode of learning that pre-dates symbolic communication. The way infants learn is proof of it.

It is, therefore, not at all inappropriate that advertising feeds on the communications arts, provided – as Graham Watt so thoughtfully points out in a recent article – that it does not chew off the legs it stands on by feeding on itself.

But all this obscures the real problem, which is that despite its slick, technical brilliance in taking over and making over the products of other areas of communications, much advertising is shallow, not thoughtful, and lacking a philosophical core.

Advertising seers

Where are advertising’s philosophers, its seers, its scholars? To deepen its learning, advertising must appropriate not merely the elements of the other communications forms, but the wisdom of serious thinkers, of savants, of sages.

One who qualifies as all of the above, and more, is a scientist-turned-business philosopher/ writer, Kenichi Ohmae. Though not directly associated with advertising, Ohmae has much to teach it.

International consultant Ohmae is recognized as one of the globe’s leading business thinkers. Described by The Financial Times, based in London, as Japan’s ‘only management guru,’ Ohmae has helped some of the best-known Japanese companies capture markets not only at home, but around the world.

By far the leading writer on business and management in Japan, Ohmae has written more than 30 books, all best sellers.

Writing in Japanese and English, Ohmae is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review.

A widely read series of his articles set an entirely new agenda for international business, and made him a substantial influence in the u.s.

Points of view

Working with governments and corporations, and taking fact-based but controversial points of view that have later proven to be correct, Ohmae has gained a reputation as a visionary.

A 1989 poll of prominent Japanese voted him Japan’s most influential public opinion leader.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Ohmae went on record as favoring qualitative research over quantitative.

It is his view that to gain insight into consumers, and to truly anticipate their needs, there is no better way than to speak with them individually and at length.

‘I would much rather talk with three housewives for two hours each on their feelings about, say, washing machines, than conduct a 1,000-person survey on the same topic,’ Ohmae says.

‘I get much better insight and perspective on what they are really looking for,’ he says.

Unusual pronouncement

This is an unusual pronouncement for a person with Ohmae’s scientific background. Like all of his pronouncements, it will arouse controversy in the marketing community which puts more store in quantitative research than qualitative.

Nonetheless, with Ohmae’s remarkable record for predictive accuracy, qualitative research is likely to come out ahead.

A graduate of Waseda University, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ohmae earned a Ph.D., not in marketing, not in commerce, not in business administration, not in economics, but in nuclear engineering.

He lives in Tokyo, but his unusual academic background and his travels worldwide have given him a unique perspective on what he believes will be an increasingly borderless world.

Strategic thinking is a large part of that world. Ohmae looks at the conceiving of a strategy as a creative act. In an excerpt from his book, From the Mind of the Strategist – Business Planning for Competitive Advantage, he writes:

Favorable conditions

‘In business, as on the battlefield, the object of strategy is to bring about the conditions most favorable to one’s own side.

‘In strategic thinking, one first seeks a clear understanding of the particular character of each element of a situation, and then makes the fullest possible use of human brainpower to structure the elements in the most advantageous way.

‘Phenomena and events in the real world do not always fit a linear model.

‘Hence, the most reliable means of dissecting a situation into its constituent parts, and then reassembling them in the desired pattern is not a step-by-step methodology such as systems analysis. Rather, it is that ultimate non-linear thinking tool, the human brain.

Reintegration

‘No matter how difficult or unprecedented the problem, a breakthrough to the best possible solution can come only from a combination of rational analysis based on the real nature of things, and imaginative reintegration of all the different items into a new pattern using non-linear brain power.’

Here is a man schooled in the numerative and the linear, trained in the sciences, a post-graduate in nuclear engineering, a renowned adviser to the temples of linearity we call Big Business, a man who has the ear of the linear world, preaching non-linearity, non-linear thinking, non-linear brain power.

Non-linearity

The non-linearity that Kenichi Ohmae espouses, the same non-linearity that scares the pants off brand managers and marketing directors, produces creative breakthroughs in all fields, and that includes advertising.

Hailed as an important thinker, respected as a business visionary, Ohmae is breaking through the pervasive linearity of the client community.

The creative possibilities for advertising inherent in this are endless. The advertising community would do well to appropriate the thinking of Kenichi Ohmae and others like him.

Marty Myers is chairman of Miller Myers Bruce DallaCosta in Toronto.