Maurice Saatchi

Now the great advertising guru Lord Maurice Saatchi has entered the fray on Google's quest for personalised search.

Below is a textual critique of his article in the Financial Times (Google data versus human nature, May 30, 2007). I've done it for two reasons.

  1. to illustrate the slick and slippery intellectual trickery often used by the advertising industry to help sell its wares
  2. to uncover the assumptions which it relies upon, and actively peddles.

Saatchi starts his article with the parable of the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion asked the frog to carry him across the river, and at first the frog said No, because the scorpion would take the opportunity to sting him in the back. The scorpion replied that that wasn't logical, because if he did, the scorpion would die too. So the frog said Yes, and then half way across the river, the scorpion did it anyway. He couldn't help himself, he said, it was in his nature to do so.

With this little story Saatchi does three things. First, he elides and confuses two concepts of rationality: the economist's dream of perfect decision-making based on access to all the information in the world (a set-up for his coming attack on Google), and the everyday use of the term 'rational' to mean 'not ridiculously stupid'.

Second, he subtlely introduces one of the main - but carefully unstated - themes of his article: consumers are stupid like the frog (everyday meaning number two) because they are not rational (technical meaning number one).

Third, he introduces a complete red-herring: the issue of 'human nature'.

Saatchi then moves on to set-up a straw man. Today, he tells us "the world's great consumer goods companies are agog at the potential of the Internet to identify 'human nature', measure it, control it . [leading to] an earthly paradise . where all the problems of selling and marketing are solved by the same method: the method of data."

Not just one straw man, actually. Two. First, he returns to his red herring of human nature, thereby carefully leaving the real issue behind - an immediately practical debate about the possible uses of real information from and about real human beings. Then he smuggles in the classic straw-man debating technique of the false black/white either/or. Either this solves all the problems of marketing or (presumably) it solves none of them.

The net effect? Instead of addressing the reality - that we may be able use more, better data from and about real human beings to solve some of the problems of marketing - we are presented with a self-evidently absurd and grandiose vision of measuring and controlling human nature via data. Absolutely nothing to do with what we are really talking about. But hey! Why not, if it suits our debating purpose?

Saatchi then reassures his readers that he is in touch with reality by accepting that they are attracted to Google and the possibility of not having to advertise to people who not currently in the market for their product. To achieve this goal, he concedes, you need good data. "No wonder people are so excited about all the saving of money this knowledge could bring."

Yes, they are. Quite rightly. Which is a real problem for him. So he then uses debating trick number three to get out of it: if you haven't got an answer to your opponent's strongest argument, simply don't answer. Instead, avoid it like the plague. Simply don't talk about it and do your best to suck your audience down a different path.

This is what he does in the next paragraph by introducing a new Aunt Sally: perception. "All of us know that the sensations produced by the same object can vary with the circumstances," he tells us, introducing two more paragraphs on the vagaries of human perception. Hidden agenda here: to reinforce his original implied message that consumers are not rational and therefore stupid. Like the frog.

Which is when he delivers his payload: "People do not know what they want until a brilliant person shows them".

Here we have Maurice Saatchi's real message. "People are stupid, like the frog. They work according to perceptions, not facts. They need to be told what to buy by brilliant people (like me) who know how to manipulate and change their perceptions. So 'better marketing' has got nothing to do with richer, better information. But it has got a lot to do with giving my company vast sums of money to spend on advertising."

Having delivered his payload, Saatchi quickly needs to cover his tracks: it wouldn't be wise to let people stop to think about how absurd and self-serving this message really is. So, quick as a shot, he introduces another red herring: the statement that "Henry Ford confirmed as much."

Ford's point was that if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'a faster horse', not a motor car. Ford was making a comment about introducing a brand new world-changing innovation which people have never experienced before - as distinct from the thousands of products and services which people use everyday and which advertisers seek to promote through advertising. By using Ford here, Saatchi is talking about chalk as if it were cheese. But then that's his purpose. He wants to convey the idea that not only do people need to be shown brand new innovations they've never seen before, they also need to be told what they want when it comes to the day-to-day decisions they make to manage their everyday lives.

Having presented two polar opposites as if they were the same, Saatchi now wants to get down to business: how, exactly, are people to be told what they want? Thankfully, he's already prepared the ground in his discussion of brilliance and innovation, taking it one step further with the concept of 'creativity'.

Now, 'creativity', like 'rationality', has two meanings. There is the creativity of the artist/inventor. And there is the so-called 'creative' work done by advertising agencies. Saatchi deliberately confuses the two, implying that what advertising agencies do is on a par with Bach, Mozart, Goya and Michelangelo.

He does this by making the breathtakingly obvious (and utterly irrelevant) point that no amount of data can substitute for the "startling creativity of the kind practised by great artists, directors, writers, musicians, actors [and, of course, himself] who know how to touch a chord in humans everywhere." Having made this point, he then makes a fantastic leap (next sentence): "They are the people that are needed to help advertisers navigate the Internet". From innovators like Ford and creative geniuses like Mozart to Maurice Saatchi. Of course! Clearly, it's a straightline progression!

So there you have it: people are stupid and need to be told what to buy, by brilliantly creative people like Maurice Saatchi. But because this claim is so clearly specious, 1) only a part of it can be stated directly and the rest has to smuggled in as inference, and 2) it needs to be disguised via a deliberately confusing and tendentious tour of supposedly 'deep' concepts relating to rationality, human nature, perception, innovation and creativity - but which are actually being used as nothing more than Aunt Sally rhetorical devices.

Here, you have modern advertising at its best!

By the way, the one truly important issue raised by Google's personalised search initiative is completely ignored throughout the entire article (of course).

The unstated assumption of the whole piece is that the only point of collecting more and better data is to 'solve the problems of selling and marketing'. Whereas, of course, the real opportunity lies elsewhere entirely: for individuals to be able to collect and use personal data to better solve the problems they face in their lives. To search for, and find better answers to their questions, for example.

What? People using collecting and using information for their own purposes to solve their own problems, rather than being told what they want by brilliant persons? We can't have that! Can we, Maurice?

Alan Mitchell

30 May 2007