the anatomy of humbug - how to think differently about advertising

Paul Feldwick (author of ‘The Anatomy of Humbug’) has had a long and distinguished career in advertising. Present during the early days of ‘planning’ in the context of advertising, he has a pretty unique perspective on the industry as a whole. The book takes us through how modern advertising has developed over the last 100+ years and introduces us to the key characters that have had a profound effect on modern communication theory.

It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone in the industry and is a worthwhile reminder that all the digital disruption in the world does not change the fundamentals of human psychology.

As Paul points out, his book ‘isn’t about how advertising works but a book about how people think advertising works’. Having read the book and had the opportunity to talk with Paul I thought it might be useful to summarise the main theories of advertising that he has identified – Salesmanship, Seduction, Salience, Social Connection, Spin and Showmanship.


This theory starts in the early 1900s when print based advertising was dominant. It is essentially seen as a rational process to explain ‘why’ people should buy - ‘the more you tell, the more you sell’. Things develop as TV is introduced and the concept of ‘message recall’ is examined and new, more scientific models are developed such as:

Unawareness, Awareness, Comprehension, Conviction, Action



Beginning in the 50s the seduction theory is based around the observation that human behaviour is not entirely rational and that people’s decisions are influenced at an emotional level. Asking people to explain their decision-making process in retrospect will often lead to misleading post-rationalisation. It’s this theory that justifies an emphasis on creativity and leads to the (wholly bogus) concerns about subliminal advertising.




Salience is about influencing buyer behaviour by making brands more accessible in the consumer’s memory – as Paul says, ‘simply making a brand more famous will drive sales’. This theory supports the notion that advertising that is idiosyncratic, bold and single-minded will be most effective.

Social Connection


Talking about TV advertising – Martin Boase famously said that as you appear, uninvited, in people’s living rooms, you should at least attempt to be a ‘charming guest’. Brands need to build relationships and therefore making people laugh, cry or just think is very important in building an emotional connection.



Spin is usually associated with PR. It means aligning with a message, a cause or a celebrity that may not have an immediate or obvious connection with a brand. However, this association communicates a message or an attribute that is considered appropriate and beneficial.


Ironically, we come to the theory that pre-dates all others. PT Barnum famously said ‘no publicity is bad publicity’. These days, we simply say ‘fake news works’. For Barnum, facts were irrelevant; he revelled in controversy, fake exhibits and outrageous claims – anything, in fact, as long as people talked about it. Of course, that sort of thing could never work today!!!

The above are very quick and crude summaries I’ve pulled from the book. I would encourage you to read the book in full to get a more complete picture.   You can purchase the book here.

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image source: www.onlydeadfish.co.uk


CEO. Mark joined HPS as an Account Director and moved to take over the running of the advertising division within two years. In 1989 Mark was appointed to the HPS board. Mark became Managing Director in 1994 and Group Managing Director in 1997. In January 2001, Mark completed a Management Buy-Out of HPS with the CFO, Richard Triggs. Mark has been the principal architect in the development of HPS to become one of the Thames Valley’s leading agency groups and spearheads the company’s M & A programme.

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