Mar 9, 2022 • 9M

Book Review: Humbug

Fantastic resource for understanding theories and ideas about branding and marketing

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Newsletter and audiocast about the business of brand messaging
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This is the rare business book that's not over after chapter 1.

Unlike how most modern business books are designed editorially – where the hook and entire 3-act plot arc are succinctly packaged into the introduction and first chapter. And this is also how they’re consumed, according to Amazon Kindle data - Thomas Pickety’s Capital, for example.

But this book lets the ideas unfold gradually and it’s necessary to read the entire thing.

In one sense, it's a solid history of advertising (and thus marketing and branding), that also touches on public relations history, which I see as the same thing. But the author doesn’t and presents the book as a history of advertising, based on his professional experience therein.

So it’s a business and cultural history.

But in a higher sense, though, it's a (thankfully non-academic) work of critical scholarship in which the theory landscape of advertising, marketing, and branding is carefully investigated and when needed (which is often) just as carefully debunked.

The author is obviously brilliant (and reads his own book well on Audible). Maybe not quite as funny as his counterpart Rory Sutherland is in Alchemy, who probably could have had a career as a stand-up comic instead of an ad exec.

Nor is Feldwick as good a writer as David Ogilvy - though his critical analysis of the latter is fascinating.

Actually, he lacks the narrative power of many of the famous influencers he critiques. Which makes sense, these people became famous because, when you get right down to it, they were good writers.

But his ideas are just as intriguing as anyone - and maybe more honest than those he critiques.

As the author meanders through the 20th century, you will encounter non-romanticized biographies of influencers, from FDR to Bernaise. You’ll also find subversive but well-argued takes on the emptiness of theory in advertising and its sibling disciplines.

The takedown of Claude Hopkins for example is quite brilliant. He calls into question whether Hopkins actually believed in the theory of “scientific advertising” that he espoused.

Ditto for Bill Bernbeck, who coined the term and concept of “Unique Selling Proposition”, or USP, which is predicated on the theory that people only remember one thing. But Feldwick never offers a justification for this theory other than citing common sense. Nor is evidence available that his theory is more effective than others.

But USP is probably the most popular advertising theory out there - people love the idea of capturing it all succinctly. I myself do to be honest, though I wouldn’t qualify it as either right or wrong. Which is sort of a theme in this book.

As an aside, someone should write this book in this style on the history of theory in consulting. I would not be surprised if many of them were equally contrived - meaning non-scientific theories hinging on a catchy name and easy-to-digest core idea, whose ultimate purpose is to generate business.

The author has not ruined this book with any grand pronouncements of his own, thank god. It’s not preachy. It insists you reach your own conclusions.

But like a good storyteller, he wraps up it all with a surprising and interesting twist that I won't spoil.