Like a drunk clutching a lamppost

A few words of wisdom from David Ogilvy, legend of the ad world: “Use research for illumination – not for support, like a drunk clutching a lamppost.” 

Metal statue of a lamp post with a metal figure clinging to it.

Don’t be like a drunk clutching a lampost. Test what you uncover from your research,

Market research is an important tool in the business box, but when it comes to actual, real-life predictions it’s about as reliable as Nic Cage on a bender.

Here’s a real-life example from way back when.

Leo Burnett, another advertising legend, had as his client a little cigarette company called Marlboro. He and his agency made some ads featuring cowboys – but the research said it would flop.

“To hell with the research. Run it.” said Burnett.

Everyone remembers those ads… and Marlboro became and remains the best-selling cigarette in the world.

Leo Burnett also said this: “The public does not know what it wants. There is no sure way of finding out until the idea is exposed under normal conditions of sale. If people could tell you in advance what they want, there would never have been a wheel, a lever, much less an automobile, an airplane or a TV set.”

My point is this: when using research to market your business, you can only base your views on what people actually do, not what they say they do.

The problem is that people will tell you all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons.

They can tell you:

  • What they think
  • What they believe
  • What they know
  • What they understand
  • What they don’t understand
  • What they like or dislike
  • How they decide
  • What they think you want to hear

But not what they will do.

And sometimes, they won’t even tell you truth when they’re telling you any of that.

People want to be seen to be clever. They want to please. So they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear, or something that makes them seem clever or important or well-informed.

Here’s an example: consumers insist they aren’t swayed by free gifts and contests. They want to be seen as far more sophisticated than that. But in practice, free gifts and contests do very well when it comes to bringing in sales.

And another example: consumers and business people insist they don’t read long copy letters and order forms. But long copy and detailed direct mail packs consistently outpull short ones. And not only that, but people tend to spend more money as a result of long letters and mail packs.

So do your research – it’s never a waste of time – but don’t expect it to tell you how people will behave and what they will do.

You can and should use it, though, to discover customers’ motivations and find out why they behave the way they do.

The sure only way to find out what works in marketing and advertising is to test.

Feeling a bit stuck? I can show you how to use research effectively – and how to test effectively – Borrow My Brain. If you have a problem you’re not sure how to solve, get in touch.



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.

PS  Here’s another anecdote about research that made me chuckle: a company got groups of consumers together in a big hall and asked them to rank a set of products in order of appeal. Then they displayed the products at the end of the room and the participants were able to take away the same of their choice.

Funnily enough, the company discovered that customers never chose the products to take away that they’d said they preferred.

They also left all the products hanging around to give people a chance to steal them. The most-stolen products turned out to be best-sellers…


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