Is our fetishisation of insights misled?

Occasionally I read something which completely challenges a long held belief.

Most recently it was BBH planner Mel Arrow’s piece Forget Human Truth, Brands Should Be Talking Human Fiction. She suggests we spend too long obsessing over insights, when humans are just as attracted to fiction and narrative. It’s a good argument – Homo sapiens lasted by sharing stories.

There is no insight in Justice4Grenfell’s 3 Billboard campaign. It’s simply a cracking media idea.

As a subscriber to “strong opinions, lightly held”, I’m suddenly questioning my philosophy on how advertising works.

I’ve long been fascinated by how agencies treat insights. (I’m partial to Mark Pollard’s definition: “an unspoken truth that sheds new light on the problem”.) One of the great things about freelancing is being exposed to a variety of strategic frameworks. When you flirt with eight agencies in a year, you see their differences in how each uncovers, uses, respects and encourages insightful thinking. (Or rather, how similar everyone is!)

Almost always, at the foundation of every brief template is the coveted ‘human truth’. Surprisingly no one seems to agree exactly what this is:

  • An evolutionary truth – human behaviour that has always been true and will always be true
  • A pop-cultural truth – a long or short trend to exploit which may only be true right now
  • A target market truth – a unique behaviour true only to our audience and no one else
    1.  

Arrow asks a bigger question – do we need a truth at all? (And no, it’s a cop out to say “the human truth is humans like fiction” – I’m talking about writing a useful creative brief).

Walmart’s Famous Cars campaign is a glorified product demonstration. There’s no insight in this work, but it is fame-building excellence.

Agencies worship their human insights like deities. Yet there are a number of schools of thought suggesting they may not be as critical as we once believed:

  1. Low Involvement Processing theory suggests most comms are processed relatively passively. Simply by being exposed to an ad builds preference through familiarity, irrespective of message (see mere exposure effect).
  2. The value of advertising is in its signal as much as its message. Ads create (a self fulfilling) faith in the future popularity of something.
  3. Byron Sharp’s research on distinctiveness, where being famous for something, even when it’s not technically different from competitors, creates memory structures which influence you at purchase.


Ads do not need a human truth to be effective. Which is a compelling notion having worked on two automative clients last year, where uncovering an insight on yet another retail brief isn’t easy (or necessarily helpful).

Instead, perhaps the role of the planner remains simplifying the problem (not to be underestimated), ensuring the approach to advertising is theoretically effective, and then getting out of the way. 

In many cases the brilliance in an ad comes from a well told story. This is what makes the product or brand famous for something. Like the greatest product demonstration ever made, for Volvo Trucks, which is entirely devoid of truth:

John Hegarty said “Advertising is 80% idea and 80% execution.” That doesn’t leave much room for a human insight.

So when do you need one, and when do you not? I don’t know. If you’re a strategist who’s stretched (lol, joking, that’s everyone) ditching them on retail campaigns might be somewhere to start. Campaigns that focus on specific product attributes might be another. If you have a thought, let me know in the comments below.

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