Advertising Needs More History Majors

In the United States in 2014, only 1.7% of the undergraduate degrees awarded were history degrees. In the period since 1971, the share of history and social sciences degrees has declined from 18% to 9%. 1

Why study history? According to R.G. Collingwood, Oxford philosopher,

“We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act.”

An understanding of history is necessary to help us avoid making the same mistakes. Yet, as a society we no longer value the study of history. Everybody wants to get rich quickly, usually as a result of their “personal brand” or being on a reality TV show or as a Wall Street investment banker. (All pretty much the same thing.) So we get degrees in finance and leave the study of history to the musty old professors.

The result? When an advertising huckster comes along, pitching AI or machine learning, it all sounds great. The younger folks, with no exposure to past nonsense nor the inclination to look back in time, fall for it and add new things to the already gigantic advertising tech stack. Somebody gets rich, but it’s not the advertiser.

Those of us old enough to be exposed to history hear “AI” and “machine learning” and remember neural networks 2. We ask lots of inconvenient questions. The huckster leaves to look for more fertile ground. The advertiser keeps their money and stays on strategy.

With the constant bleat of “new” from well-funded startups that prey on the historically-challenged advertiser, is it any wonder advertising is such a mess? “XXX is dead” and “XXX% improvement” are storylines used for thousands of years and rejected by those successful enough to understand history–of their trade, of their nation, and of their civilization.

Takeaway: Hire some good liberal arts majors, particularly history majors. They know how to reason, how to write, and how to see if you’re being pitched some rehashed nonsense. And win.


1 Dr. Niall Ferguson, October 28, 2016, quoting Julia Brookins, “New Data Show Large Drops in History Bachelor’s 11.Degrees,” Perspectives on History, March 2016,

Witchcraft that was purported to be better than logistic regression models back in the 90’s. Call me to discuss.

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