Could Book Advertisements be Produced by a Robot?

By Leslie C. Norins, MD, PhD | June 20, 2017

Robots are continually in the news for taking over many industrial tasks and causing job losses, but they have not made many inroads into creative fields.  Like advertising.

Automation of ad production might seem far-fetched, since advertisers customarily require their ads be differentiated from those of their competitors.

However, if all ads in a particular genre did share most characteristics, it is possible the process for producing them could be wholly, or largely, automated.  Such a robot would save staff time and money for the advertisers and ad agencies.

From my research last year, I have concluded that “book advertising”—as presently carried out– is ripe for a robot.  Here’s the story.

Why book ads were studied

In 2016 I was planning to nationally market a new medical mystery novel.  I was fortunate to have available a bigger budget than would be true for many small publishers.  So, naturally I thought of placing some ads in places where “the big guys” of book publishing advertise.  For instance, The New York Times Book Review.

But what should be my ad’s copy and art?  Let me explain I’m not new to publishing.  I’ve had a 40-plus year successful career in creating and growing medical newsletters for healthcare professionals.  So I know a good bit about marketing of periodicals.

But for book advertising I was the new kid on the block.  Therefore, I decided to study national book ads to see how they differed from each other, and which ones stood out as most appealing.

What problem did 100 book ads reveal?

I studied 100 full-page book ads from six months of issues of the New York Times Book Review. Just pick the best one, and imitate it, right?

Problem.  There was no best one.  Shockingly, all 100 ads from these publishing giants looked similar in most ways, and contained identical categories of items.

Identical components in 100 book ads

The textual elements each ad shared were:  the book’s title, its author’s name, several laudatory quotes from reviewers or fellow authors, and the publisher’s name. The common art elements were: an image of the book’s cover and centripetally-arranged laudatory quotes.

The only variable items were the letters of the alphabet in the text items, the font and point size of the type, and the color palette used.

Similarities enable robotics

The commonalities above will allow any competent computer coder to construct quite simply the necessary code for the robot to produce all book ads. Only two individualized elements need be loaded by the operator for each different book advertised:

  1. An image of the book’s cover (This also supplies the book’s title and author’s name). Usually centered.
  2. A few laudatory quotes

Purposeful variation will disguise robot’s role

One desirable attribute of robotically produced high-end items is that they can incorporate some degree of customization visible to the user. For example, as a mass-model automobile nears the end of its assembly line, it can be painted the color you have selected. And, a shirt factory can monogram your initials onto a shirt it has just mass-produced.

Thus, if a few “option” choices are coded in, the robot can heighten the impression each book ad is bespoke, created to order by a human. The ad items to be varied are:   color palette, type font and point size, and size of the book cover’s image.

The location of the elements within each book ad is straightforward.  In most cases, the book’s image is placed in, or slightly above, the center. The laudatory quotes are arranged around it.  It is desirable to have minor variations in X-Y axes positioning; these are programmed in Monte Carlo fashion to camouflage mass production.  Ten acceptable color schemes can be pre-loaded.

Master robotic template for book ads

The basic reproducible layout for the necessary book ad items is shown here:

Hypothetical example using basic template

Here is a mockup of the simplest format for producing book ads robotically:

Advertising’s usual mission violated

The usual purpose of advertising is to help sell a product, especially differentiating it from competition.  Therefore, to be effective an ad must stand out.  The more it imitates ads for rival products, the greater chance it sinks into the background of boredom.  This mandates an ad’s being different.

To persuade would-be buyers, an ad also presents, or hints at, the benefit a buyer will obtain by purchasing the product.

But this is not the current situation for book ads.  Little originality in copy or art, rarely a benefit described.  As the cliché goes, “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”.

Some might say the author’s name is sufficient, at least in cases where he or she has already written some best-sellers. But how does that recruit readers not familiar with this author?

Peculiar purpose for book ads?

But maybe book ads are not intended to actually sell?  Perhaps like legal notices, they are presented merely as a matter of record?  Or as a device to maintain favor with the author, and to provide a prod for industry pals to order wine for the publisher’s executives at lunch?  There seems to be corporate confusion on the purpose of book ads.

Are ad agencies to blame?

Usually when ads are weak or copycat, the spotlight of blame falls on the ad agency, whether independent or in-house. Fair enough—provided the ad professionals have been given leeway to express their best creative talents.

Here my personal experience sheds light.  Despite my relatively small book marketing budget, I was fortunate to be accepted as client by one of the best-known ad agencies specializing in books.

I candidly communicated to them my desire to have ads that departed from the stereotype, and that would likely be more attention-getting.  Expecting resistance, I was pleasantly surprised to find the key people receptive to different approaches.  They proved quite creative in coming up with several unusual possibilities, and in fine-tuning a couple for use.

Although it is risky to generalize from a limited sampling, I feel this case illustrates that book ad professionals indeed possess abilities to create new and different book ads, which could possibly be more appealing and persuasive to potential buyers. So the barriers to creativity must lie further upstream.

Book publishing executives must lead

The power to pay for book advertising grants the privilege of setting the goals for it.  Unless these ads are placed purely as a matter of record or an accommodation to authors, the fact that so many of them are essentially the same suggests higher executives in book publishing have a laissez faire attitude toward advertising, or find conformity comfortable and safe.

Experimentation with different ad formats, copy and art does carry risks, of course.  But increased book sales would hopefully result, and at the very least the publishing house will bolster its image as innovative and making every effort for its authors▪︎

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