Curiously, Credos had been wondering the same thing and last year asked Paul Feldwick to come up with a list of just 12. JB clearly approved of the Credos ‘reading list’ and offered some of his own thoughts on a few of Paul’s choices in this week’s issue (02.08.2013).
Here’s what Paul had to say back in December 2012 about some of the most spine-broken collections in his personal library.
“It seems a simple question: if you were to recommend around a dozen key books about advertising and advertising research, what would they be? Yet trying to answer it makes us see how many different discourses about advertising there are, and how rarely they pay attention to each other.
I have several shelves of books about advertising. My collection is far from comprehensive, but it includes: academic books and text books of varying usefulness, but nearly all heavy going; some popular works by famous admen (and yes, I’m afraid these are all men), which are fascinating and important but unscientific and often self-deluding; books from every decade since the 1920’s about ‘how to advertise’; histories and biographies of the advertising business; attacks on the immorality of advertising; defences against same; and quite a long sequence of actual case histories, which however never tell the real story of how a particular campaign came to be. Some books have been hugely influential, but are in my view seriously misleading; others contain valuable insights, but are either impossible to get hold of nowadays, or are virtually unreadable. Finally, many of what I consider the best books about advertising are not about advertising at all, dealing with psychology or communications theory or even literary criticism.
With that preamble, I have however made a selection and it is as follows. If you knew nothing about advertising, and were to read these twelve books carefully and critically, cross referencing them as you go, you would have a broader understanding of advertising than most people in or out of the business. You would also have plenty of ideas for further reading if you wanted to go there.
So I have selected:
Three works about advertising’s history
Martin Mayer – Madison Avenue USA 1955
Stephen Fox – The Mirror Makers
Vance Packard – The Hidden Persuaders 1957
Perhaps the best way into an understanding of advertising is to appreciate its narrative, its larger than life characters, its energy and inventiveness.
Mayer was a brilliant journalist who studied the US advertising scene at a crucial time when much of what we now take for granted was new and controversial – when TV advertising was newer than the internet is now.
Fox covers the same ground and much more as history, and brings to life many of the great advertising men – and the too often forgotten women – who were influential without writing books.
And I couldn’t leave out Packard. You will make up your own mind about his attack on advertising ethics when you have read the other books on this list. But his book is important partly because it was itself very influential (Reeves largely formulated his theories in response to it), and because it points to a fundamental issue about how ads work.
Three influential works by great admen of the past
Claude Hopkins – Scientific Advertising 1923
Rosser Reeves – Reality in Advertising 1961
David Ogilvy – Ogilvy on Advertising 1983
These are probably the most widely read books ever about advertising so they are essential to an understanding of advertising’s history and culture.
They are each highly readable, make advertising seem simple, and give some idea of how their authors inspired confidence in their clients. Just don’t mistake them for science, or even for an accurate depiction of what their authors actually did. Read critically in the light of the history books and the modern theories, you can learn a lot from them as long as you don’t swallow them whole.
Three contemporary books about advertising theory, which I think are soundly based and also readable.
Byron Sharp – How Brands Grow
Les Binet and Peter Field – Marketing in the Era of Accountability
Stephen King - A Master Class on Brand Planning
Sharp sums up decades of empirical studies by Andrew Ehrenberg and his followers which challenge most conventional wisdom about marketing and set up a theory of advertising which is very simple and yet probably more right than wrong.
Binet and Field have analysed thirty years of effectiveness studies and produce conclusions which partly support and partly complement Sharp.
King’s collected papers, with contemporary comments, together develop a view of advertising which balances the ‘informational/ propositional’ theories of Hopkins or Reeves.
Three books about advertising that aren’t about advertising (and will lead you to others if you’re interested)
Timothy Wilson – Strangers to Ourselves
Daniel Kahnemann – Thinking Fast and Slow
Watzlawick et al. – Pragmatics of Human Communication
The past twenty-five years have seen many new developments in psychology and neuroscience which are now also widely accessible in highly readable books like Wilson and Kahnemann (I could add several others, but these are a good place to start). They provide evidence that our decisions are not, as Hopkins and Reeves pretended, conscious weighings-up of factual evidence, but are largely driven by emotions, subconscious processes and non verbal communication.
Watzlawick’s work shifts our attention away from the content of communication to the role it plays in relationships: a radical thought which can be applied to advertising with profound consequences.
I am conscious of many other books hammering at my door and demanding, with good reason, to be included in the list. I’m also anticipating (with some interest) the opinions of others who cannot believe I could omit ———.
But if I were to allow a thirteenth, I should add More Bullmore by Jeremy Bullmore. Not only will it probably tell you everything really important in the other dozen books, but it will introduce you to someone who has worked his whole life in advertising and remains both witty and wise – factors that transcend any amount of academic theory or dogmatic bluster.”