The fallability of research

It’s astonishing how often research jumps to the wrong conclusion. Brexit is just one example.
by Mike Everett
Posted on: June 27th, 2016
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UK Out of EU

As I write this I have beside me Thursday’s London Evening Standard. The headline reads as follows: ‘Remain ahead in final poll’. Also beside me I have Friday’s Evening Standard, whose front-page headline shouts ‘We’re Out’. So, as with last year’s General Election, the polls have got it wrong again. Not that I’m surprised.

Time and again, research has proved itself to be a creaky tool. Here’s another example. Some time ago, a friend of mine – a fellow copywriter – handed over to me a document that dates from Britain’s first year of membership of what was then called the Common Market, 1974. It is a research report on the ‘Heineken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach’ advertising campaign. This document, after a great deal of waffle and pseudo scientific posturing reaches the conclusion that ‘The commercials are unlikely to promote awareness of Heineken and interest in drinking it.’ Happily, the Heineken client, Anthony Simmonds-Gooding, and the head of the agency that created the Heineken campaign, Frank Lowe, ignored the research and ran the campaign anyway. And they were right to do so. Heineken went on to become one of the most memorable and much-loved advertising campaigns ever to run in this country.

It’s a fact that the conclusions reached by most research that is applied to advertising campaigns are wide of the mark. Either the research kills off perfectly good work or endorses commercials that have us rushing for the fast-forward button every time they appear on our screens. In my opinion – and it has to be said, my experience – gut instinct has proved itself to be a better judge of advertising than research. Not that I don’t understand why clients flock to companies like Millward Brown to commission it.

If a client approves a campaign and it goes tits up, very little of the blame will attach itself to the client. They can always point to the research that assured them they had a winning campaign on their hands and say ‘well it flew through research’. Which brings to mind that line that one agency wag coined many years ago: A client uses research in much the same way that a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than illumination.

Go on, clients out there. Be brave. Trust your instincts. You never know, you might end with some work that doesn’t have viewers hitting the fast-forward button. And wouldn’t that be nice for a change?