Theodore Sturgeon was one of my favorite science fiction authors. Sturgeon–allegedly the model for Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout–was most famous for his novel More Than Human, and his story “Microcosmic God” is one of the all-time greats.

But I remember him most for Sturgeon’s Law, which he formulated in defense of science fiction. The first written reference appeared in the March 1958 issue of Venture Science Fiction:

“I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize ninety percen of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that ninety percent of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that ninety percent of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.”

In other words, “ninety percent of science fiction is crap; but then, ninety percent of everything is crap.”

The question is, is this true? The second part, I mean? And if so, so what?

I think it’s true–true enough, anyway. Substitute “advertising” for “science fiction,” and what do you think?

To me, this means that ninety percent of the ads being created and approved and released into the world every day in the hopes of arresting someone’s attention are crappy. Their creators, for myriad reasons (many having to do with the sour economy), aren’t taking much time to develop the crappy ads. Sometimes they’re not capable of doing great work.

But the biggest roadblock to good advertising is that ninety percent of clients don’t want it.

Let me restate: ninety percent of advertising is crappy because ninety percent of advertisers want crappy advertising.

When you’re in charge of the advertising, the pressures to play it safe can be huge. You want to get things produced and approved with minimum hassles. You have a boss to please. Any attempt to stand out too much is a risk. It could lead to embarrassment among your peers, and the last thing you want to do is look like a fool to your customers and competitors.

So your advertising blends in with all the rest of the world’s crappy advertising. By not wanting to stand out too much, you don’t stand out at all. Take little risk, get little reward.

Perhaps little reward is okay with you. But any business has the potential to reap great rewards–and often the only thing standing between the current state of your business and its potential for great profit is the strength of your spine as an advertiser.

If you don’t want to stand out, why are you wasting money on advertising? And if you’re going to spend the money anyway, why not take some risks? Demand advertising that actually gets attention. Stop worrying about what you like and start thinking about what customers want. Take the chance that if people see you standing above all the crap out there, they might actually like you and want to do business with you.

And here’s the dirty little secret: most marketing people won’t follow this advice. They’ll think it doesn’t apply to them, or that their advertising is already part of that top ten percent. I’m here to tell you they’re wrong, by definition. Ninety percent of them, anyway, are wrong.

I used to know an advertising guy whose motto was, “Good advertising is what’s on the air.” In other words, if the client paid for it, it’s good. We don’t believe that around here. We always want to push our clients to do outstanding work. There’s enough crap out there in the world without our adding to it.