Advertising on Planet Vulcan

How our fixation on data is killing creativity on Earth

in space with a planet in the background; a spaceship is seen orbiting and exploring space
There seems to be more similarity these days between Vulcan and Earth as far as approach to advertising goes. Getty Images

Vulcan advertising: You can imagine what it would be like.

The ad business on Spock’s home planet would be an entirely logical affair, data dependent and driven by the scientific method. Those Vulcans don’t have an appetite for risk, so there would be little room for crazy ideas. Nobody on Vulcan is leaping without looking. Nobody is following their instinct when all signs point to a different course of action. Anything that can’t be proven in advance gets an eyebrow raise.

Come to think of it, advertising on Vulcan sounds a lot like advertising on Earth these days.

It sure seems like 95% of the advertising we see in the world feels expected, logical and not a whole lot of fun to take in. You have to ask why, don’t you? Why does the bulk of the advertising we see bother us rather than inspire us?

It’s not a new struggle, but it does seem like it’s getting worse. Maybe it’s because we are getting so good at measuring things. Or at least we think we are.

Business is trending more conservative. Margins are tighter. Tolerances are lower. Leaders in business these days say they want a “culture of failure,” yet no one really does. That’s an unrealistic motto if you think about it. Money, praise and job security in big companies aren’t generally going to the schmuck who keeps coming up zeroes.

Today, much of the advertising we see seems like it was engineered in a laboratory environment. It’s technically alive, but we’re all wondering if it has a soul.

As the old saying goes, advertising is part art and part science, yet 20 years ago, that science was sketchy at best. It probably worked in favor of the crazier, riskier and more artful advertising propositions. Creativity was wilder, more spontaneous. Today, much of the advertising we see seems like it was engineered in a laboratory environment. It’s technically alive, but we’re all wondering if it has a soul.

While advances in data science yield valuable benefits, our fixation on data is also responsible for having damaged the output of many creative industries, advertising being perhaps the hardest hit. Data has grown up, and it’s become a bit of a bully in most organizations. Data routinely holds the art (and its counterintuitive arguments) down with one hand as it steals art’s lunch money with the other.

With advances in data science, the ad industry now has the tools to minimize that risk of investment. We can use personal data to ensure that we’re making exactly what our audiences are asking for. We can cheaply and quickly test ideas in conceptual form. With advances in AI, we can automate the making of some things altogether.

While the desire to make things safer is easy to understand, in a creative field like advertising, being safe is actually a long way from being outstanding. To borrow a phrase from AT&T’s campaign, “Just OK is not OK.” And it’s making advertising a lot less enjoyable.

When you strive for average, deal in norms and aim for acceptable tolerances, you’ll never do anything memorable or interesting or groundbreaking. Businessman Phil Knight once said, “History is one long processional of crazy ideas. The things I loved most—books, sports, democracy, free enterprise—started as crazy ideas.” These days in advertising, you’re never going to get a green light to do something “crazy” before you actually just go and do it—that’s why it’s called crazy.

Perhaps in this data-obsessed age, we need to remember that risk isn’t inherently pejorative. Imagine a roomful of marketers in jubilation because they’ve discovered that something is “very risky.”

Or maybe we need to entertain the notion that some things in life can’t be tested or proven beyond a reasonable doubt. And if we don’t embrace that, our lives—and our advertising—will remain pretty boringly Vulcan-esque.

There’s a great scene from the old sci-fi film Contact with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. Foster is a scientist, McConaughey a man of faith. Foster argues that something isn’t true unless it can be empirically tested. McConaughey, with a smile, asks her a question. “Did you love your parents?” Foster says, “Yes, of course.” He simply replies, “Prove it.”

@brianfromcanada Brian McPherson is managing partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco.