The Return of Pearls of Wisdom

No-one has actually asked me for more JWT gems so I am shucking another oyster anyway for one further pearl from the ample and original tool chest of J. Walter Thompson. (Stop with the mixed metaphors, please. Ed)

This is a little screwdriver (Ha!) called Stimulus and Response.

Again a theory espoused by JWT in London. It is based on a classic communication module.

In the module there are four components: A sender, a receiver, a medium and a message.

Now imagine that the sender is a large ship, the receiver is a very small ship in the path of the big ship, the medium is a loudspeaker, and the message is ‘Get out of my bloody way. Well what do you think the small ship’s response might be – it will get out of the bloody way.

JWT surmised that this just doesn’t apply to adverts, despite many people thinking it’s that simple, as if the consumer will respond like a dog being told repeatedly to obey. (“Buy one today and make it a big one”).

Well of course they won’t obey, the consumer will need more, they will need to be enticed, to be persuaded or they will go out and make a cup of tea or change channel. (I used to upset clients regularly when I informed them that folks are not actually sitting in rapt attention waiting for your ad to come on (this is the single biggest failing of social media, it’s just too easy to ‘skip’ the ads).

So Thompson redefined the communication model as it related to adverts in this way. Imagine the sender is a comedian, the receiver is the theatre audience or folks at home. The medium is a microphone or the TV. And the message he wants to deliver is ‘I am funny’.

Now should a comedian come out and say, ‘Hello, I am funny’, the response would be, ‘What? That’s not funny at all’. So the comedian, who is not a fool, uses a stimulus – a joke. Which might be about his mother-in-law, (No Misogyny please. Ed), fat people, (What? Ed) or Australians (Stop it! Ed). And the response is now, laughter (Or horror. Ed). His communication worked and funny was never mentioned.

So now the communication module changes. Sender, Receiver, Medium, Stimulus and Response.

And this is how JWT believed advertising worked. Advertising ideas are stimuli, this is what is required to provoke the desired response; to persuade, to cajole to encourage the consumer to think, ‘I might like this product enough to buy it’.

A little sidebar, which is strangely topical: In 1973 there was a cover of the National Lampoon magazine with a hand holding a gun to a puppy’s head with the line ‘If you don’t buy this magazine, we will kill this dog’.Do you think people bought the mag because they thought they would carry out the threat or that they had cleverly stimulated the response, “that is very satirical, and that’s exactly my cup of tea”. (Knew their audience, eh? Ed.)

So issuing instructions will not work, consumers are not vacuous sponges, they are responsive humans. Even David Ogilvy said, only half joking, ‘The consumer is not an idiot, she’s your wife’.

Now I know you, or more likely your wife, is asking, ‘what constitutes a stimulating idea?’. Good question, which, if you are good, I will address next time using JWT’s unique thoughts on ‘How to have an idea’.

But only if you stop laughing.  

Paul J Loosley is an English person who has been in Asia 40 years, 12 as executive creative director and regional planner for JWT and 26 making TVCs. Retired some five years ago yet still, for some strange reason, he can’t shut- up about advertising. Any feedback: mail [email protected] (please keep it stimulating).


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