Years back, my wife and I watched a film about China.
Mao Zedong and ‘the Gang of Four’ had been responsible for the ‘cultural revolution’.
They’d thrown anyone remotely influenced by western culture into prison.
But Mao Zedong had recently died.
Deng Xiao Ping had taken over and was busy undoing the damage.
One of the areas the Chinese began studying again was western classical music.
They invited one of the world’s best violinists, Jasha Heifetz, to come to China to judge their students’ progress.
That was the basis of the film.
To impress Heifetz the teachers got their best students to learn the most difficult piece of music.
A very complicated piece for violin by Paganini.
As Heifetz listened, each of the students played it for him.
Their concentration was total, they’d practiced for weeks.
As each one finished the teacher asked Heifetz what he thought.
Heifetz said “It’s very good.”
The teacher asked if he could suggest any improvement.
Heifetz said “Could they try it with a little more feeling?”
The teacher and the students were flummoxed.
The teacher asked “Which notes were wrong?”
Heifetz said “No notes were wrong.”
The teacher asked “Then what could they do better?”
Heifetz said “Could they try it with a bit more…..feeling?”
The teacher and the students didn’t understand, and Heifetz didn’t know how to explain it.
Next to me my wife was laughing.
She’s Chinese, she’s from Singapore.
She said “They don’t understand what he’s talking about. They don’t know what ‘feeling’ means. They only know if it’s right or wrong.”
Cathy understood the problem, it was why she’d left Singapore.
She wanted to go to art school and in those days there were no art schools.
Students should be studying something useful: learning to be doctors, or accountants, or scientists, or lawyers.
She had to come to England to go to art school.
Her dad allowed it because she was only a girl.
He thought she didn’t need a serious career like a boy would.
And that’s why Cathy was laughing at the film.
Having lived in the west she knew how important feelings are in art.
Intuition, empathy, judgement, emotion, impact, memorability.
But the Chinese, students and teachers, couldn’t understand it.
Surely logic and reason ruled over everything.
So, if everything can be broken down into logic, you can spot exactly which notes are wrong, and what must be done to fix them.
To us this seems naïve: a very odd way to create powerful music.
But that’s exactly how we create advertising.
We are suckers for logic and numbers.
We take impact out and put targeting in.
We take persuasion out and put brand-purpose in.
We’re incapable of standing back and saying “Hang on, is something missing? Is it all getting a bit boring?
Is it all the same? Will anyone even notice it?”
We don’t do that because we’re doing advertising the way the Chinese students learned the violin.