Sunday, August 03, 2008

Mad Men and mind reading

AMC’s series Mad Men has been generating a lot of positive attention from critics lately. It’s a slick show set in the 1960s that follows the experiences of Madison Avenue Advertising Executives and the people around them. The New York Times review captures what everyone likes about it:

The advertising executives, who called themselves “mad men,” were at the front of the consumer rat race, hypnotizing the American buyer with huckster campaigns created off-the-cuff in smoky meeting rooms or on a cocktail napkin at El Morocco…. The advertising business was flush, blissfully unburdened by aging readerships, failing newspapers, DVRs or the Internet, and only barely accountable to the federal government or public opinion.

That kind of unbridled freedom is the series’s one speck of sentiment, evoking nostalgia for a time before the current audience-knows-best rule of business, in which viewers vote on who gets to become a pop star, publishers ask readers to choose their authors, and politicians ask viewers to decide what issues they should discuss, as is the plan in next week’s live Democratic debate, a joint project between CNN and YouTube. When Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the suave creative director of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, receives consumer data from the research director that suggests there is no way to avoid addressing Americans’ concerns about the health risks of smoking, Don coolly drops the report in his wastepaper basket.
While some of the big agencies are still run by a few iconic personalities, for the most part it's quite different today. While at one time the industry might have been enthralled with some new creative campaign, data, analytics and big business practices grab the lion's share of headlines these days. Case in point: Brandweek reports that its parent company, Nielsen is partnering with Mindset Media to develop a method of tying consumer behavior (actual purchases) to behavioral data (personality mapping). The idea is to expand Nielsen’s ability to target types of consumers beyond surface demographic information. Retailers may know who buys what, but it’s hard to link that information with good answers to the “why” question.

Personality profiling is nothing new – and certainly the rise of the psychological mindset was important to advertising in the 50s and 60s, too. But today, agencies and retail companies adore it even though everyone admits it’s not an exact science and requires a fair amount of interpretation. But what’s most interesting about this announcement is Nielson’s attempt to link personnas with actual purchasing behavior -- people who allow Nielson into their home get to scan their purchases and then match their behavior against personality tests. On one level, this is good multi-method research, attempting to link actions and ideas. On another level, it’s based on a rather shaky premise, that personality is fixed, measurable, and drives consumption.

It’s not clear that today’s ad campaigns have a better fix on the human imagination than those Mad Men of the 1960s. Neither group really knows how people make decisions. The only research that could actually show this is long term ethnographic work, watching the same people shopping over a long period of time. Reacting to the Nielson news, Russell Jones from AlixPartner put it well when he said:
"The real question in my mind is this: How does it help me make branding decisions any better than the information I used to have? It doesn't tell me who I should target, although it tells me who responds to various brands."
It’s not clear what exactly Nielson and Mindset Media will find out. But I can tell them one thing: whoever came up with the retro-lighter package design for the Mad Men DVD boxed set was right on target.

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