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A Review: The Anatomy of Humbug

As someone comparatively new to the advertising industry, I hoped that Paul Feldwick’s latest work, ‘The Anatomy of Humbug’, would provide me with an interesting take on how advertising works. In this I was not disappointed. I found that the book provided an engaging guide to how people think, and how people have thought, about advertising: What’s its purpose? What makes an ad successful? How effectively can this success be predicted and measured? In order to explore these questions, Feldwick draws on a range of studies and examples reaching back to the 19th century, charting the recent history of advertising along the way.

Feldwick presents two main arguments in his work. Firstly, that those working in advertising today could benefit from paying more attention to the people and ideas that came before them. As a history graduate I was glad to hear this, and was interested to read the ways in which we typically overlook historical precedent in the industry. This first argument is established in the prologue, and it eloquently supports Feldwick’s use of historical mapping in the main part of the work. The reader already understands by chapter one that any attempt to comprehend how advertising works is deeply rooted in a store of knowledge build gradually over time by those in the industry, as well as many from outside it.

Feldwick’s second argument is explored throughout the main body of the work. He argues that following one particular mode of thinking or model will limit your potential and that of the advertising you work on. In order to explore this, he identifies six different modes of thinking and explores them in turn, breaking the work into three sections.

The first part of the work is used to examine one of the most influential and powerful modes of thinking: rational persuasion. Taking the reader back to the beginning of the 20th Century, Feldwick explores how advertising has often been seen as salesmanship in print: a way to share the benefits of a product or service in order to reason with the consumer. I was really interested to see how whilst this type of persuasion can seem a bit clumsy to contemporary advertisers, rational reasoning is intrinsically linked to modern advertising, not least through the language we use - ‘proposition’ ‘message’, ‘reason why’… the list goes on.

The second part of the book delves into how advertisers appeal to the emotions of the consumer – ‘seducing the subconscious’. To me this feels like a hot topic in the industry at the moment, with a great deal of energy being spent on studies into behavioural economics and related subjects. So I was surprised to find that advertising and human psychology have a relationship that long predates the work undertaken today. Here, Feldwick charts the rise and fall of motivation research, plunging into the murky depths of ethics in advertising – I was surprised to learn that the experiment using subliminal messaging in a cinema was a hoax!

In the final part of his work Feldwick presents some different models for approaching advertising. He examines in turn the merits of salience (getting famous and being top of mind); PR methods or ‘spin’ (playing with our communal constructs of reality); social connections (the myriad ways humans communicate and how this should be considered in advertising) and finally showmanship (the ability to dazzle by being courageous and following your instincts).

Feldwick points out that of course in real life you’re likely to come across a range of models being employed simultaneously. Feldwick’s book certainly helped me detangle the different approaches and ideas that advertisers employ, elucidating and clarifying how each works independently as well as how they are interrelated.

Throughout the book I was encouraged to think imaginatively and to show flexibility in my work. Feldwick clearly shows that there’s little to be gained from sticking to one way of thinking, or from ignoring the impressive array of ideas and concepts that have been amassed by so many over the previous decades.

Feldwick isn’t laying down the law or carving principles in stone. Instead, I felt that the whole essence of ‘The Anatomy of Humbug’ inspires us to be reflective, iterative in our thinking and brave in our decision making. Overall, Feldwick puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of gumption and fearlessness. I was left feeling that if I learn all that can be learnt from the vast history of advertising and its influences, I’ll be in an excellent position to follow my instincts and make bold choices, and that this is how successful advertising should work.

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