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Is Rory Sutherland’s Wedding Invitation Analogy a Good One?

In an article published last summer in New Statesman, Ian Leslie, a writer and veteran of the ad industry, points out that a brand’s message can be far more powerful when it is visible to large groups of people at the same time—the Super Bowl or Times Square, for example. The creatives at ad agencies know how to take advantage of these shared moments to help brands. Whereas, as Leslie puts it, the engineers at Facebook and Google tend to conceive of ads “as a mere conduit for information about the product.”

According to Leslie, Rory Sutherland, Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, compares viewing an online ad to receiving a wedding invitation by email. If ads really were just a “conduit for information” then it wouldn’t matter if a wedding invitation appeared in your inbox or your mail box.

But it does matter. Mailing is more expensive than emailing. And as every bride or groom knows, look and feel are powerful things. You get a pretty good sense of what kind of wedding it is going to be the second you glance at the envelope, well before you’re exposed to the actual information.  

Rory is right—the medium is the message. But his point might be too theoretical to provide ad agencies with a way to win back profits from tech giants including Facebook and Google, each of which now “has a market value exceeding the combined value of the six largest advertising and marketing holding companies,” says media commentator Ken Auletta in The New Yorker.   

Does receiving a wedding invitation via email really change how you feel about the wedding? Do you remember what the last invitation you received “felt” like? Is a Super Bowl ad worth it?

For decades the value of mass market ad campaigns has been assumed. But with the rise of data rich tech companies—and their unchallenged ability to show how we click and buy—the burden of proof has shifted. As one of my tech friends said to me when I was trying to convince him of Rory’s analogy: “I’ll believe you. Just show me the data.” 

I’ve heard Rory make his email analogy a few times—first in his entertaining presentations and then on an essay for Edge.org, a website dedicated to contemporary intellectuals and scientists. When I encountered the email analogy in Leslie’s article, I figured that it would be a good idea to test it.  

So that’s what my team and I did. We recruited a few hundred participants online and randomly separated them into two groups. The first group saw an image of a wedding invitation and the second group saw the same image embedded on a mock Gmail account. We told the first group, “Imagine receiving this wedding invitation in your mail box.” We told the second group the same thing but changed “your mail box” to “your inbox.” We asked both groups a question inspired by Rory: “What are the odds this wedding will have a cash bar?”

We found that the average result from each group was nearly identical—just around 50 percent, suggesting that people took one look at the invitation and randomly guessed.  

We decided to conduct a follow up experiment. We recruited another group of participants and asked a different question: “How would you judge the overall quality of this wedding?” This time, we found that participants who received the invitation in their inbox judged the wedding to be of worse quality.

The effect was small. But that made it interesting. Based on the data we could better estimate what a bride and groom stand to lose if they send their invitation over email. When you think about all the moments before a wedding that contribute to your expectation of it, from the save-the-date card to the choice of registry, it’s easy to see how small impressions add up. They color an experience in a way we rarely notice.  

As Rory says, “10 percent of advertising is information. The rest is inference.”  

Leslie ends his article with a quote from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “It is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality.” Leslie’s point is that the tech nerds who design our smartphones and engineer our social media feeds are indifferent to the concept of a brand. To them, shopping is an engineering problem. The goal is to “identify the precise moment that a consumer needs something so that it can trigger a sale.”

In 2013, the feminine hygiene brand Always launched the “Like A Girl” campaign. The T.V. commercial featured people of all ages interpreting the phrase “like a girl,” as in “run like a girl”, “throw like a girl” and “fight like a girl.” In the first few frames, the camera shows girls entering puberty who flail their arms unathletically after being instructed to “run like a girl.” Then the camera shifts to younger girls who had not been alive long enough for the link between the phrase and running style to solidify. So, when one of the younger girls was asked by the director “What does it mean to you when I say ‘run like a girl’?” she responds, “It means run as fast as you can.” She proceeds to sprint around the studio enthusiastically, uninfluenced by a stereotype that instantly feels outdated.   

Brands work on us. When Listerine famously placed a label “halitosis” on “bad breath” they didn’t pressure people into believing that their breath smelled bad. They convinced everyone that their friends thought their breath smelled bad and weren’t speaking up—hence the gossipy taglines “If your friends were entirely frank with you” and “They say it behind your back,” which appeared in the 1920s.

But how does that process work? How does a brand become part of common knowledge? These are the questions ad agencies spend their time thinking about. They study how people use brands to broadcast signals without consciously acknowledging them. They learn how to interpret and then redesign those signals. They know that advertising works not by preying on our emotions but by “changing the landscape of cultural meanings, which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product,” says software engineer Kevin Simler in a blog post.

The digital revolution is strange. It designs interfaces that make it easier for us to get things we want. Good design in this view is targeted and invisible. In the “Like a Girl” campaign, the opposite is true. Your thinking is interrupted. Your beliefs are addressed. A social norm is challenged.  

Like a wedding invitation buried in a pile of mail, a great ad momentarily interrupts mindless routine to create an impression. It stands out. It draws you in. It’s not invisible.

I’ll never fully convince my friend of Rory’s analogy. I ran the study and I collected the data. But the world is too chaotic to determine if Rory is right with the kind of certainty my friend is looking for. He insisted that brands did not “work” on him like they worked on most people. Based on his outfit, I was inclined to believe him. And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a bottle of Listerine in his bathroom.