The timeless five tests of the obvious

28 April 2022
Authors Jack Miles

As valid today as they were in 1916

5 min read

Researchers love new things. New thinking – great. New tools – amazing. New methodologies – the best. But let’s consider old thinking for a minute. This creates less excitement. Why? 

Is it less cool – maybe. Is it less trendy – almost definitely. Is old thinking less effective at solving business problems – erm, not always actually. 

Sometimes old thinking is more effective than its modern equal. One example is the thinking in the story of Oliver Adams. Or Obvious Adams as he’s better known. 

Robert Updegraffe authored the story of ‘Obvious Adams,’ in 1916. It's a tale of business success in advertising. 

The story’s main protagonist is Oliver Adams. Adams works his way from a New England grocery store up to Vice-President of the Oswald Advertising Agency. 

How does Adams do this? By being factual, simple and obvious. Obviously. 

Adams has five ‘tests of the obvious.’ These are five ways to look for the obvious answers to questions. And they’ve never been more relevant. Especially for researchers: 

The problem when solved will be simple

In 1916 Adams said: 

“The obvious is nearly always simple. So simple that a generation of people have looked at it without even seeing it.”

In 2019 behavioural economist Richard Thaler said: “If you want people to do something, make it easy”.

103 years went between these statements. But the message has never been truer. The world has got more complex between Thaler and Adams proclamations. 

The result? Simplicity has never been more valuable. And the opposite has never been more unfashionable. After all, as Dave Trott says “complexity is weakness, it means we haven’t thought long enough to get to the simple answer”. 

Does it check with human nature?

“If your way of doing things doesn’t conform to human nature you’ll waste your time, money and energy trying to accomplish your purpose.” 

100 years later, Behavioural Scientist Richard Chataway echoed this. Chataway says that “every business is in the behaviour business.” This means to change people’s behaviour, brands need to conform to human nature. 

Research, thus, needs to direct brands on how to do this. Are we focused on doing this effectively? I’m not sure we are. Why? 

Because we’re in danger of thinking we’re in the technology business. The GRIT report 2022 mentioned the word human 44 times. Behaviour 59 times. Technology had 362 mentions. 

Yes, this is using technology to understand behaviour. But we need to rebalance our focus from platforms to people. 

Put it on paper

“Write out your idea, plan or project in words of one or two syllables.”

David Ogilvy criticised researchers for using jargon in ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ in 1983

Our counterparts at Research Live discussed marketing jargon’s allure last week! 

Why do we love to complicate words? Because we think they make us sound clever. But they don’t. 

Using words with one or two syllables – as Adam’s suggests – are better. Why? Because such words make us understandable. And if we’re understandable, people will listen to us.

Does it explode in people’s minds?

“If an idea doesn’t explode, if it requires lengthy explanation and involves hours of argument, either it isn’t obvious, or you haven’t thought it through yourself.”

“Time is money.” “Love is a four-letter word spelt T-I-M-E.”
The quotes about time’s value are never-ending. But here’s the reality. 2.5 million Americans, subjective feelings of time poverty had a stronger negative effect on well-being than being unemployed.

This means that if we spend hours selling a method or explaining complex charts, we’re harming ours and our audience’s wellbeing. An unhappy researcher today, may choose not to be a researcher tomorrow. And an unhappy client today, maybe a lapsed client tomorrow. 

We can avoid both scenarios if we inject simplicity and excitement into our ideas. 

Is the time ripe?

“Checking an idea’s timeliness is important as the idea itself.”

Adams liked timeliness 106 years ago.

George Doran liked timeliness in 1981 when he invented the SMART objectives framework. Timeliness in this context relates to specifying when we achieve results. 

The Behavioural Insights Team liked it when they developed the  EAST behaviour change framework in 2014. Timeliness in this context relates to how we can react differently to the same information at separate times. 

Timeliness, ironically, is timeless. Much like Adam’s ‘tests of the obvious’. This means that we must: 

  • Prioritise simple over sophisticated

  • Think about people, not platforms

  • Write simple words instead of generating jargon

  • Explode not explain

  • Be timely. All the time

Jack Miles
Senior Research Director at Northstar Research Partners, Research World Editor in Chief, Online at ESOMAR