Why people do buy from clowns: The importance of entertainment in advertising

28th May 2021

Paul Feldwick worked at the legendary creative agency Boase Massimi Pollitt for over 30 years. His latest book, Why Does The Pedlar Sing?, examines what creativity really means in advertising. In April, he joined Bristol Creative Industries to share some of his insights. Dan Martin summarises the fascinating event.

Paul Feldwick has a distinguished career in advertising and has worked on some of Britain’s most famous advertising campaigns including the PG Tips chimpanzees, Rowan Atkinson promoting Barclaycard and the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster. What all those ads have in common is entertainment, a factor which Paul believes is essential in successful advertising.

But there is actually a long-held belief by many that entertainment actually doesn’t work. Claude C. Hopkins famously argued in his book Scientific Advertising in the 1920s that people don’t buy from clowns. “Advertising pictures should not be eccentric”, he wrote. “Don’t treat your subject lightly. Don’t lessen respect for yourself or your article by any attempt at frivolity. People do not patronize a clown. There are two things about which men should not joke. One is business, one is home. An eccentric picture may do you serious damage. One may gain attention by wearing a fools cap. But he would ruin his selling prospects.”

“Father of Advertising” David Ogilvy was a big fan of Hopkins and Sergio Zyman, who worked for Coca-Cola in the 1980s and helped launch the Diet Coke brand, said that advertising that merely entertains does not work.

But Paul Feldman is a big fan of entertainment in advertising, a subject of his book, Why Does The Pedlar Sing?

“The tradition of advertising that works by entertaining is not a new one, it probably is very ancient indeed”, he said during the event. “I see it as going right back to the medieval peddler, who would travel from house to house from village to village with what he was selling. He was a travelling entertainer, he would sing songs, he would tell jokes and he would dress in a funny way. He was all purpose, general entertainer.

“Entertainment as a way of selling things contradicts all those arguments about people not buying from clowns and selling a serious business. How is it that despite the fact that so much advertising through the ages has used entertainment, have we got saddled with the ongoing belief that selling ought to be a serious business?

When serious advertising does work

Before he tackled why entertainment and humour are good for advertising, Paul acknowledged that Claude C. Hopkins’ argument does hold up for direct response advertising, the kind of ads that you see in Sunday newspapers.

“It tends to be very sober,” he said, “it tends to be giving you the facts, it tends to be avoiding jokes and it doesn’t do anything that is eccentric or odd. If it’s well done, it works absolutely brilliantly. You know it works because the advertisers know exactly how much each insertion sells and exactly what the responses are.

“The split-run technique used by direct response advertisers originated back in the 1890s. It was based on using coupon responses that Hopkins evolved his give the facts, give the information argument around.”

Keeping your brand name before the public

“We used to tend to believe as a default that advertising works by a matter of rational persuasion; it has to give reasons why, it has to give consumer benefits. That’s the language that we still use a lot. If you look at most people’s creative briefs, they still have the idea of the central proposition. There has to be a single-minded proposition, we are telling people why the product is better.”

But Paul said that idea was turned on its head by the work of marketing specialist Andrew Ehrenberg and then Australian professor called Byron Sharp, who wrote the influential book, How Brands Grow

“He had the radical idea, which was originated by Ehrenberg, that advertising doesn’t really work by persuading people or giving information at all. It works by creating something that they call mental availability. To put that very simply, it’s like fame. All that needs to happen in order for a brand to grow is that it needs to come to more people’s minds, more often, and then they’re more likely to choose it.”   

Paul continued that this is also why people choose one brand over another. “Why do more people buy McDonald’s products than Burger King? Because more people think about McDonald’s more often than Burger King, and they have more associations with McDonald’s than they do with Burger King because they’ve had more experience of it.” 

Why entertainment in advertising works 

Paul said neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have shown that what underpins our decisions is something that’s emotional. If we don’t have an emotional response, we simply cannot make decisions so there’s no such thing as an entirely rational decision. That’s why so much advertising has done something different, and what it has done differently is using entertainment”, he added.

So why does entertainment work?

It makes us feel good and simulates an emotional reaction, Paul said.

To illustrate the point he used the example of the massively successful advertising campaign by tea brand PG Tips which used anthropomorphic chimpanzees dressed in human clothes. It started in 1956 and ran until 2002. 

The brand remained a bestseller throughout that period despite lots of advertising by other tea brands and the introduction of much cheaper own brand products by supermarkets. Paul explained: “PG Tips maintained a significant business advantage, not by telling people why their tea was better, but because people remembered it more, it was more top of mind, and they felt more positive about it. That was through doing advertising that was entertaining and fun.”

Another example is the Compare the Meerkat advertising campaign from Compare the Market which Paul says uses the principles of entertainment. 

“It has characters, it has drama, it has incident, it has talking animals, it’s childish, it’s ridiculous.” It is also massively successful.

Holding his own cuddly meerkat, Paul Feldwick said the brand has gone one step further by using merchandise that generates even stronger consumer connections with the brand. The Kevin the Carrot campaign by supermarket chain Aldi is another example of a business linking merchandise to its entertaining advertising. 

Another brand ticking the entertainment box is Premier Inn and comedian Lenny Henry. 

“It has to distinguish itself from the very similar business Travelodge and it has been hugely succeeded in doing that,” Paul Feldwick said.

The use of Lenny Henry also epitomises the use of a ‘distinctive asset’. It’s something or someone that is unique, distinctive and recognisable. The meerkats and Kevin the Carrot are other examples.  

“If you create something that is trying to say something about your product, the chances are you’ll produce something that looks pretty much like what all your competitors are doing,” Paul advised. “But if you produce something that has nothing whatsoever to do with your product, like a meerkat, then you have got something that is unique and is part of the psychology of what lodges in people’s memory.

Good distinctive assets are those that follow the rules of what makes good entertainment, Paul Feldwick said. 

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About Bristol Creative Industries

Bristol Creative Industries is the membership network that supports the region's creative sector to learn, grow and connect, driven by the common belief that we can achieve more collectively than alone. 

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