William Golden on market research

“About three or four years ago, somebody thought that it would be very good for me to be subjected to some agency’s presentation on readership studies covering some ten years of advertising. After about three hours, I began to get angry, because they made very definite statements. The statements were something like this:

A picture must be two-thirds of the page. There must not be more than so many words of copy, nor less than so many words of copy. The headline must be under the picture. At one point they went into food advertising and pretty soon it became very clear that nothing in the world was any good for food advertising except photography, and better than that, color photography. Drawings were lousy. Humor is impossible. And if you did use color photography, be sure that you had yellow right in the middle of the picture.

Then they skipped by–I do not think intentionally–an ad that was relatively recent at that time for Borden’s, ‘Elsie, the Cow.’ I was surprised because that ad had one of the highest ratings in the bunch and it was everything that a food ad should not be. It was humor. It was continuity. There wasn’t a color photograph within shouting distance of the place, and yet it had a high rating.

I noticed, too (I noticed it because I went back and looked at it) that when they first began the series it didn’t get very much of a rating. After about a year, it began to get up there, and after two or three years, it knocked all color photography with yellow in the middle for a loop. If the researchers had their way, nobody would have been allowed to do an ‘Elsie, the Cow.’”

— William Golden (1950)