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Why Smart People Sometimes Say Stupid Things

2010 August 18

Smart people accomplish things by finding solutions to important problems.  This is a tough, disconcerting process that’s full of frustration and boredom. The great physicist Richard Feynman likened it to being a confused ape.

Yet succeeding isn’t enough for most people, they also want to be prophetic and that’s where they run into trouble.  They try to codify their performance by making up simple rules that inevitably fail.  It’s a trap that we all fall into sometimes, but should do our best to avoid.

What follows is a particularly instructive example of how, in the quest for simple, core beliefs, smart people can say some pretty dumb things.

The Ad Contrarian

Recently, I’ve become addicted to the Ad Contrarian Blog, written by Bob Hoffman of the Hoffman/Lewis agency.  It’s a mixture of sharp wit and good sense that is highly readable and informative.  If you’re at all interested in marketing, it’s a must read.

Mr. Hoffman is more than just a blogger.  He runs a highly successful ad agency with $120 million in billings and A-list clients such as McDonald’s and Toyota.  Judging from their reel, they do very fine work and serve their clients well.

The trouble came when one day they got bored and decided to formulate their success by creating three simple rules that they felt would encapsulate their approach.  The result is something that might make sense, as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Performanced Based Advertising

You can read the document they provide for yourself here, but basically it based focuses on three principles:

1. Advertising is most productive when it’s focused on changing behavior, not attitudes:

On the surface, this would seem to be highly sensible.  You want people to buy your product, right?  Who cares about a lot of feel-good fluffiness?  Well, as I wrote a while back, psychographics are important for many reasons, among them:

Targeting: For many categories (i.e. cosmetics, beer, cigarettes)  attitudes are the only effective way of defining consumer groups.  People’s sex, age, education and occupation often tell you next to nothing about what they will do or buy.

Long-Term Strategy: As Mr. Hoffman loves to say, “It’s easier to convince you to eat a Big Mac then to convince you that eating a Big Mac is a good thing to do,” and he’s right.  However, what people think about Big Macs will have a measurable effect on sales in the long term.  In fact, changing attitudes is how you build a sustainable brand advantage.

His client, McDonald’s, understands this well and goes to great lengths (including the development of its own proprietary survey) to track consumer attitudes about its brand as well as competitors in every country in which it does business.  When those numbers start slipping, you can be sure that they do something about it.

Moreover, it’s tough to see how Hoffman Lewis puts this principle into practice.  Their reel is full of adorable kids treating their mothers to a birthday lunch, middle aged football heroes having cute conversations with old ladies and the like.

I’m not knocking the ads, they are good spots which would make any agency proud; but I’d be willing to bet my considerable wealth (of experience) that they put a lot more time and effort into the emotional impact of their ads than the quick price offer they sometimes throw in at the end.

2. Advertising messages should be created for, and directed at, the heavy using, high yield customers in your category:

Okay, here he has some factual ground to stand on.   Sales gurus call this the 80/20 rule, while economists have branded it the Pareto Principle and mathematicians describe it as a Power law. Whatever you want to call it, it takes about 5 minutes of volumetric analysis on any basic research survey to work out that heavy consumers make up the bulk of sales.

Yet how does one go about targeting heavy consumers?  You have to describe them in some way; either demographically, psychographically or by activity (i.e. commuters, family outing, etc.)

In reality, you target people who have specifics wants, needs and preferences. A heavy user could hit you with a bus and you probably wouldn’t know it was a heavy user (unless of course, you have an alcohol client).

It’s hard to see how the process he so vehemently advocates (focusing on heavy consumers) doesn’t end up with a result that he so adamantly decries (i.e. demographic and attitudinal targeting).  It’s true that attitudes are often misused by silly marketers who psychoanalyze toilet paper, but you can’t legislate good sense.

3. We don’t try to get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand; we convince them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product.

This one is a bit baffling for a guy who runs an agency that does such image intensive advertising.  Nevertheless, he’s making the same mistake that I ascribed to direct response marketing, assuming that the only objective is immediate sales.

There are a lot of reasons why sales might not be the primary objective.  For instance a brand that is effectively converting a small base might want to increase awareness.  Another might want to use social media to encourage advocacy.  A third, might notice that its internal attributes are falling in tracking research and want to change attitudes.

Good marketing, much like anything else, is about solving problems. That means you have to identify the problem first.  Things like awareness, consideration and advocacy are just as important as immediate sales (and, incidentally, not much harder to measure).

Should brand managers ignore obvious problems in order to serve a maxim?

The Problem with Rules

A while back I explained why marketing rules are useless, but nothing shows it better than Hoffman Lewis’s “Performance Based Advertising.”  The problem with simple axioms is that they are either too general to be meaningful or too specific to be useful.

As I mentioned above, Mr. Hoffman is a highly capable, intelligent man.  He could just say, “We work very hard at what we do and hire talented people that really care about getting results,” but he didn’t.  The luster of a codified system was too tempting.  If he fell into the trap, then we’re all at risk and there’s where the lesson lies.

To solve problems that matter, we don’t need axioms; but the discipline to approach problems without prejudice toward one solution or another.  As for me, I’ve only found one rule that’s really worth following and, since all bloggers are hypocrites, I’ll share it with you:

Find a problem.  Solve it.  Repeat.

– Greg

11 Responses leave one →
  1. August 20, 2010

    Feynman is one of my favorites. I have 4-5 of his books. I’m not sure that the really smart people have an issue with being brief. They actually seem to prefer it. I guess with wisdom comes profoundness. It’s a disbelief that the audience will “get it” that makes them laboriously create a play-by-play at nauseating detail.

  2. August 20, 2010

    Yeah, Feynman is one of the all time greats!

  3. August 22, 2010

    Great post Greg,

    For me one of the most educational and informative experiences I’ve ever had (in terms of business and) was when I worked at the Apple store. Here you are on the ground level, on the front lines, in day to day conversations with customers and you are hearing, listening and experiencing why people are or are not buying. 80% of people (not a number I reached scientifically) were buying because their friends raved about everything Apple. The majority of buyers purchased because they were influenced by people they knew and trusted – not because they were influenced by an ad. Not saying advertising doesn’t do that but your best friend in the whole world telling you that that ice cream parlor is the best one in Chicago, trumps an ad everytime.

    This is my question…how influential is advertisement in terms of the ACTUAL reasons people try out/buy a product or service? (addressing rule #3).

    Before the explosion of digital there was no way for people to share market ideas, recommendations, raves and disses about ‘brands’ at the scale you can today. Now that you can do that, there are companies whose advertising model is based on “community rhapsody”. And it is a force to reckon with. Will traditional advertising disappear, nope…but it has rival. I’m all over it and seeing how it plays out.

  4. August 22, 2010


    Great comment!

    Our agency actually has a good body of research on this and word of mouth figures in highly on consumer influence (depending on the category, expert advice, such as doctors, can be very influential as well).

    However, there are a few things that are important to keep in mind:

    1. TV does just as well (at least on our TouchPoints research)
    2. Word of mouth doesn’t only travel through social media. Most people still talk to each other:-)
    3. Probably the most valuable feature of social media is that it gives brands the ability to listen in real time (They were actually listening before, but now its possible to do it more effectively.

    – Greg

  5. August 23, 2010

    Greg, I have yet to hear someone say, “I’m going to the store because I saw this great ad.” The ad is a jumping-off point. Most of the people I meet now research major buys before making a commitment. Ads pique their curiosity but there has to be more.

  6. August 23, 2010

    Good point, Cheryl. Thanks.

    – Greg

  7. September 5, 2010


    It’s been a few weeks and I’ve been wanting to respond to your piece entitled “Why Smart People Sometimes Say Stupid Things” but haven’t had the time until today.

    There are a number of errors and misunderstandings in your comments.

    In section 1 of your post, which deals with the issue of whether advertising is most productively focused on changing attitudes or behavior, you say some nice things about our McDonald’s ads and then go on to dispute my point by saying “I’d be willing to bet my considerable wealth (of experience) that they put a lot more time and effort into the emotional impact of their ads than the quick price offer they sometimes throw in at the end.”

    This, of course, is true.

    The error in your logic, however, is in the assumption that logical ads are for changing behavior and emotional ads are for changing attitudes. I am flabbergasted that a marketing professional would assert this.

    I don’t think I understand your point in section 2 of your comments.

    If you’re saying that ultimately we have to buy media the way it is sold — by demographics — I agree with you. But the point of my second principle (Advertising messages should be created for, and directed at, the heavy using, high yield customers in your category) is not about media buying. It is about creative strategy.

    Let’s take the wine category as an example. It may be true that demographically the heavy users of wine tend to be women 45+ (I don’t know, I’m making this up.) But in this category, the behavior of a 25 year-old man who is a heavy user is more relevant than a 45 year-old woman who is not. Consequently, one should not develop creative strategy by looking for insights into the behavior of women 45+ (which most agencies would) but by looking for insights into the behavior of heavy wine users across demographic types.

    By the way, of all the principles of performance-based advertising, this one has been unusually effective for our clients and unusually successful in differentiating us from other agencies.

    As for section 3, all I can say is….you need to read more carefully before calling someone stupid.

    You say…”The Problem with Rules. A while back I explained why marketing rules are useless, but nothing shows it better than Hoffman Lewis’s “Performance Based Advertising.”

    I couldn’t be more clear in “Performance Based Advertising.” I say “We want to emphasize that PBA is a series of principles, not rules. PBA is about probabilities, not absolutes. (For that matter, any statement about human behavior is about probabilities, not absolutes.) There are plenty of examples of ad campaigns that do not follow these principles but have been successful. There are also situations in which PBA principles will not be relevant. If you apply PBA principles, you are not guaranteed to succeed. And if you don’t apply them, you are not guaranteed to fail. ” I don’t know how that could be any clearer.

    I have followed your blog and think you are a smart guy. But sometimes smart people say…unfortunate…things.

  8. September 5, 2010

    Mr. Hoffman,

    First of all, let me reiterate that I’m a big fan of your blog and, from what I can see from the reel on your site, it seems that your agency does a great job. However, as should be clear, I don’t agree with the principles laid out in your agency document.

    Just to clarify a few points:

    Section #1

    I don’t make that assumption and agree that emotional advertising does change behavior. I even wrote a post about why it does:

    Section #2

    Yes, I agree again, but think your document and your comments on your blog go way to far. Heavy users are a good place to start, but in the end you’re going to have to describe that user in some way. That’s very difficult to do without using demographics, psychographics or behaviors (and even then it’s still difficult because heavy users are often segmented as well, which will cut down your sample even further). Both your agency document and your blog argue against that.

    I state my views quite clearly about this here:

    Section 3

    Yes, to your credit you do say that and often repeat it in your blog. Moreover, you often take pains to state clearly when your are making statements of fact and when you are making statements of opinion (which is both rare and admirable). However, even in principle, I disagree with the document (except for the point about heavy users, but you do bundle that one with the point about demographics and attitudinal targeting).

    btw. I never said you were stupid, never even remember thinking it. And, for the record, no one says stupid things more often than I. (I just never point them out in my blog).

    Have a nice holiday. Wish I was back there:-)

    – Greg

  9. September 5, 2010

    Ooops! I missed a point.

    Nothing is stopping us from buying media based on attitudes and we often do. Usage is more of a problem because of sample size. Moreover, we often buy media differently than it is sold. In fact, that’s half the trick of TV negotiations.

    – Greg

  10. Evan FitzGerald permalink
    September 16, 2010


    I love your writing but I am glad to see Bob calling you out on this one. I had a completely different interpretation of each point.

    1. Attitude is important and influences behavior but attitude without behavior is useless. Take Toyota for example. Would Toyota rather have me feel that they have done enough to deal with the recall problems but buy a Ford, or feel concerned but buy a Toyota anyway?

    2. It is easier to keep a customer than to get a new one. Continuing with my Toyota example. It is easier to convince someone who drives a 2007 Toyota that it is time to upgrade than it is to convince someone who drives a 2010 Ford to switch.

    3. While I agree immediate sales is short sighted, if your advertising is not part of a plan that will eventually lead to sales why the heck do it? But the original point was about loving the product not the brand. I don’t love my iPad because I like Apple. I started to like Apple because this iPad is so freaking awesome. It doesn’t really matter what I thought about the brand before, I considered Apple products expensive and too tightly controlled. What mattered is that I tried the product and it does exactly what I need it to do. My attitude is changed by my behavior, point 1.

    Thanks for the article. The important thing is it made me think, even if I think you are wrong.

  11. September 16, 2010


    You make very good points and I don’t disagree with any of them (and I’m a big fan of Bob as well).

    However, I don’t think you can do strategy in a vacuum. For every example you gave, I can give a counter example. For me, the most important thing is to approach each strategic situation without prejudice. Sometimes attitudes are useless, but sometimes they are the best way to segment consumers.

    Apple is an interesting example. They have such fantastic products, one wonders if they need promotion at all. However, they obviously think they do because they do a lot of it. Moreover, their ads suit their brand perfectly: clean, trendy and stylish. I’ve never worked on any Apple brands, so I can’t say anything from experience, but I can bet that the results justify the investment.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and polite comment to a post that you obviously disagreed with.

    – Greg

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