The philosopher Gilbert Ryle talks about the basic problem in human understanding.
He calls it the Category Error.
“When things of one kind are presented as if they belong to another.”
He blames this confusion on semantics.
He gives two examples to explain what he means.
In the first, imagine a student at Oxford being visited by her aunt.
The aunt asks to see the university.
The student shows her around the campus and the various buildings.
At the end of the tour, the aunt looks confused.
She says “I’ve seen the science building, the history building, the language building, the classics building, and the arts building. But where’s the university?”
Gilbert Ryle says the aunt is making a category error.
Confusing the physical with the conceptual.
He gives another example.

A little boy is taken to see the army march by.
He watches the parade, but looks confused.
He says “I’ve seen the soldiers, the officers, the generals, the tanks, the guns, and the supply wagons. But where’s the army?”
Gilbert Ryle says the little boy is making a category error.
Confusing a concrete entity with an abstraction.
Humans do this a lot.
As I work in advertising, that’s where I see most of it.
The category error in confusing the various parts of what we do.
The input with the out-take.
The detail with the big picture.
The intention with the result.
Relevance with visibility.
Anecdote with data.
Subjective with objective.
Emotion with reason.
Comfort with effectiveness.
Understand that none of these are wrong in themselves.
All that’s wrong is the confusion.
Any objective is valid, as long as we are honest about prioritising that objective.
And we can only be honest if we are clear about it.
And what it will cost.
To do that we have to get the category right.
The main category mistake in advertising is as follows.
Last year around £18.3 billion was spent on all forms of advertising and marketing in the UK.
Of that, 4% was remembered positively.
7% was remembered negatively.
89% wasn’t noticed or remembered.
So 89% of advertising is a waste of money.
I would think that’s the biggest problem.
If we agree on that, I have a question.,
Why is the most important sentence on a brief never written on a brief?
I’ve never seen it written on a brief.
And neither have you.
The most important sentence on any brief is:
None of us have ever seen a brief with that sentence at the top.
We assume all advertising will get noticed.
So all our attention is put on the various sales messages, the brand images, the emotional triggers, the propensity to purchase, the strategic consistency, the consumer insight, the integrated offering, and so on and so on.
Because we automatically assume people will be paying attention.
So we concentrate our whole attention on the details.
When the facts are, no one will even notice the ads.
So we concentrate on the wrong thing.
Which is why 89% of advertising isn’t noticed or remembered.
We’re discussing something as if it was something else.
We believe if we get the details right the ads will be noticeable and memorable and effective.
We are confusing one set of things with a different set of things.

We are committing a category error.

  • Mark Campion

    Very insightful and I totally agree. It does make me wonder why such a large proportion of work falls into this trap. Is it a lack of focus from an agency? Or is it a fundamental misunderstanding from clients on the subject of ‘what makes memorable work’? Perhaps both?

    Taking the aunt/university example – is it the fact that the aunt has little comprehension of what a university actually is that causes the confusion or the fact that her niece cannot fully explain what a university is?

  • Dave Trott

    in advertising terms I would guess the error arises from the fact that all ads are judged in the one place they’ll never be seen: the agency.
    Lying on the table, or held up by a suit, or on a massive TV a screen, always on their own, while everyone watches or listens quietly.
    If I present a poster, I also show a mocked-up picture of the poster in situ, amongst other posters.
    So the client is not just judging a piece of paper.
    They’re judging if a 48 sheet will dominate its surrounding environment or not.
    The category error is in not considering that the ads primary job is to separate itself off from its context.
    So we need to judge it in (or against) that context.

  • Felix Velarde

    Nice piece Dave. It’s too easy for people in my industry (CRM and digital) to glibly focus on metrics and attribution at the expense of getting the initial brief right. I like the reminder that “yeah, that’s implicit” often means “oops, forgot why we’re here.”

  • Tom Wnek

    Without wishing to be perverse or glib, it’s perfectly possible for consumers to act on advertising they haven’t noticed or can’t remember. Indeed, this happens all the time. There are endless examples of studies (see e.g. Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind) which show how audiences change their behaviour as a result of being exposed to information they aren’t aware of, let alone can recall.
    The confusion here, I hesitate to say the category error, is to treat consciousness as awareness; two entirely different things.   

    • Dave Trott

      Can you expand on the difference between consciousness and awareness?

      • Tom Wnek

        The example often cited is the concert pianist who can play a piece of music he or she has never  seen before. The pianist’s fingers move much more quickly than they can ‘read’ the music.  
        Or there is the case of drivers who react to an emergency faster than their conscious minds can compute the data to which they’re responding.
        Clearly people in these situations are aware of their surroundings, but not conscious in the usual sense of the term.
        One of the most interesting things about this conception of consciousness is that pianists or drivers or, indeed, consumers are not aware of the dichotomy themselves. Ask them why they behaved in the way they did and they will rationalise it as being a conscious decision. Psychologists call this phenomenon confabulation.
        I remember years ago being brought in to try and make the advertising of a certain famous brand more impactful. Nobody, from the client to the account team to the consumer, not even the creatives responsible, had anything good to say about the advertising. It was just the kind of bland nonsense your article is aimed at: unmemorable wallpaper. So I asked the obvious question: if no-one likes it, why has it been running for a decade? ‘Well’ replied the account director apologetically, ‘we sort of have 70% market share.’     


  • Neasa Cunniffe

    Great post. I totally agree that too often we’re judging advertising by the wrong metrics – fame and standout should definitely be given more weight than it currently is. Too many people err on the side of beautiful wallpaper rather than ideas with impact. Which is why so many Ads look exactly the same and you could substitute in any product.

    I do also take Tom’s point though about the influence of advertising which isn’t consciously recalled, but nonetheless has been absorbed by people. Very few Ads are ever spontaneously recalled by people (I still hear “Cadbury Gorilla” and “Sony Balls” in focus groups when people are asked to think of an Ad they like or have seen recently).

    However people do remember many more Ads when prompted, ones that they had completely forgotten they had seen, but had clearly noticed enough to remember it on some level. And even if they don’t remember the Ad explicitly, this Ad may still have unconsciously shaped their perception of a brand which will come into play when they start consciously considering what they want to buy. 

  • Dave Trott

    Hi Neasa,
    I know that can true, but generally it depends on the weight of spend for it to work that way.
    Sony and CDM had brilliant PR campaigns as well as TV.
    They amplified the impact by using creativity in its proper sense.

  • Dave Trott

    Thanks for the explanation Tom.
    I guess in advertising terms, anything can work if you spend enough.
    Direct Line for instance spend £81 million.
    Massive repetition will eventually trickle through to opinion followers.
    In which case the client doesn’t really need a creative dept, just someone to buy the media.
    What if we’ve only got £5 million and we have to compete with Direct Line.
    £5 million won’t get noticed or remembered unless it stands out.
    Unless it’s different to everything else.
    £5 million can’t depend on massive repetition.
    That’s when a client needs a creative dept.

  • Lee Rolston

    Hi Dave,

    I totally agree with your perspective. Any chance you can provide the source for the stats around remembered positively / negatively? 

    • Dave Trott

      Hi Lee,
      It was a researcher who gave me those numbers.
      But I think it’s worse than that.
      We are told we are each exposed to at least 1,000 advertising messages a day.
      TV, newspapers, posters, magazines, online, radio, social media, ambient, tubes and buses, etc.
      Ask anyone to name ten they remember seeing yesterday.
      If they could remember ten that would be 1%.
      Bet you can’t find one person who can. 

      • Tom Wnek

        As I’ve said, the straightforward association of spontaneous recall with effectiveness employs an outdated model of consciousness. The reason there is an almost inverse corollary between memorability and success in the marketplace, or to put it another way, why most advertising for big brands is unmemorable, is because advertising doesn’t have to be remembered to work. I could go further and suggest that memorability is even a DISADVANTAGE for massive mainstream advertisers, but that is much bigger (and darker) argument.

        Tom Wnek

        • Dave Trott

          You should write a longer article on this Tom.
          Oversimplifying, I am a creative, it could be a good argument for why ‘bad’ advertising can survive on a bigger spend, but ‘good’ advertising is what a client should do if they only have a smaller spend.

          • Tom Wnek

            To be clear, I am not attempting to validate what you and I would deem ‘bad’ advertising, much less decrying the value and importance of creativity in the sense we understand the term.  However, if we are to argue effectively against the proliferation of vacant emotive big brand advertising, we first need to understand what it is doing; how it works and why.
            Simply restating the memorable=good/unmemorable = bad paradigm won’t do, I’m afraid.
            Large modern corporations, which own the vast majority of the major brands, are rational return-maximising organisations that base their strategies on empirical data going back decades. When all these multi-nationals decide to spend countless billions of dollars running the same style of risk-averse invisible advertising all over the world, it must be telling you something, mustn’t it?      


  • Kate McInnes

    Hi Dave,

    Most importantly, loved the blog. I’m a student currently studying art but my main interest is culture and communication, especially advertising and marketing; looking at client-agency relationships, behaviour etc. I always find some of the other articles and books all a bit dense, but always find that your blogs are the most useful, informative and enjoyable to read. Just one question, and purely out of general curiosity, but where did the statistic that 87% of advertising isn’t remembered or noticed, 7% remembered negatively and 4% remembered positively come from?

    Kate McInnes

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