Is advertising art or science?


Is advertising an art or science? This question comes up again and again in adland.

The question is rhetorical. It’s designed to elicit the same answer: it’s both.

The purpose of the question, within the marketing canon, is to create a platform for a practitioner or agency to set out their stall, whichever point the opposition they happen to occupy.

It’s an important question. But a tired one in how it’s framed. It presupposes a brutal binary tension that I think beleaguers as much as animates the industry.

What is a better way to think about it?

Bear with me.

Three regimes of knowledge

An answer I find particularly inspiring and powerful comes via the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze.

In a sense, Deleuze’s mission as a philosopher was to find a way out of the impasse from, on one hand, the limitations of rationalist thinking, and on the other, the rabbit’s warren of post-modern relativism.

Part of his mission was to rebuild a model of reality, or at least, how we come to know ‘reality’ from the bottom up (in the context of late capitalism). So he looked at what we could call regimes, or structures, of knowledge.

Interestingly, Deleuze identified three regimes of knowledge, or approaches human beings have created to describe and explain reality:

  • Percepts & affects: the creative arts are about creating novel combinations of senses and feelings;

  • Quantities: the sciences create theories based on fixed points of reference (e.g. numbers, data) and the relationships between them through their measurement;

  • Concepts: Philosophy clarifies thought and ideas through method and by providing analytical frameworks, creating taxonomies, or demarcating boundaries.

These three approaches are fundamentally different, incompatible but equal in status. This is important, because while incompatible, they can and do combine in infinite ways creating our culture in a very real sense.

Take music, for example. We know we can be moved emotionally by music, but musical theory and composition is also mathematical:  time and noise are quantified in reference to certain concepts of music, to achieve a physiological and emotional effect.

The mushroom of knowledge

Building from this, Deleuze wants us to think like a mushroom.

The mistake we've made historically has been to conceive knowledge as a tree. A body of knowledge begins with a seed, grows strong roots to support a powerful trunk to support the weight of its limbs and canopy of branches. It’s a very linear and harmonious vision of knowledge – from basic organising principles, or axioms, bodies of knowledge grow, and grow, incrementally building upon itself one piece at a time in, all branches traceable back to its roots. But the tree of knowledge is also weak - if the root or trunk is critically attacked, the entire organism dies.

And so Deleuze contested this. Instead, he likened knowledge to another organism - the rhizome. A rhizome, like a mushroom, exists mostly beneath the ground. As with mushrooms, rhizome organisms are decentralised, they spread out in all directions as a nodal network, searching for the right conditions – the right mix of elements – to form and erupt through the surface.

The three forms of knowledge (and power) spread out below the surface, hidden until they break through the surface in clumps, giving rise to what we can call, paradigms, dominant ideas, values, institutions, etc.

Given the right physical, social, cultural, historical, economic or artistic ingredients, different regimes of knowledge emerge, in turn, giving form to styles, organisations, societies, cultures, etc. The three knowledge structures intertwine in different ways to create regimes (albeit often inherently contradictory and unstable) that, in a sense, develop a life of their own.

For an example of this theory applied to the real world, political theorists Chabal & Daloz pioneered in the 1990s the concept of the ‘rhizome state’ to describe the nature of post-independence politics in sub-Saharan Africa, something their theory went some way to explaining the causes of the Rwandan genocide. It was a challenge to the limitations of prevailing political development theories of the time.

What’s any of this got to do with advertising?

Deleuze’s ideas are also of huge relevance to many more areas, including advertising.

How? Well ...

First of all, it blasts open the trite either/or question I started out with. Obviously, we now have three elements, not two – we’re confronted with a responsibility to ask ourselves not is advertising art or science, but how is advertising, or this advertising art, science and philosophy?

This allows the opening up of far more possibilities and a much richer and exciting discussion.

Secondly, the viewpoint accepts that there are irreconcilable tensions among the three elements. In any major ad campaign, concepts, data and creative expressions vibrate against each other generating heat. The law of entropy tells us systems tend towards disintegration, so they must be managed – in this sense, it seems easier to conceive and therefore manage the contradictions and entropy inherent in the hard work of making advertising deliver for our clients.

This, too, is why and how, self-servingly enough, I believe planners are essential for navigating this new, endless alien territory. Because the job involves understanding the big picture, understanding how art, science and philosophy, and the experts in those fields, can work together to do great things. 

Thirdly, this perspective compels us to take a much broader view of what we do. We swim in culture, we react to it, and we create it, and there's never been a better time to experiment with fascinating new combinations.

OK, back to earth.

What I’m saying is Deleuze’s scheme strikes me as being much more helpful in thinking about what planning is actually about.

The role necessitates a mindset which sees feelings, numbers and ideas as raw material that can be combined in novel ways to generate heat through compression or tension.

It also overcomes the stupid, trite, self-serving false opposition that marketers use to justify their own limitations of thought and practice – is advertising science or art? – and gives some framework to break out beyond it.*

All this makes me feel more strongly than ever that we really need a new kind of agency that transcends old binary tropes and truisms and embrace radical ambiguity, both as a method to clear and distinct ideas, but an approach and kind of work that works differently.

Advertising is both art and science and more. So let’s stop limiting ourselves and develop a model fit for this world.