The Psychology of Advertising

"Advertisements are sometimes spoken of as the nervous system of the business world ... As our nervous system is constructed to give us all the possible sensations from objects, so the advertisenent which is comparable to the nervous system must awaken in the reader as many different kinds of images as the object itself can excite"

The leaders of the profession feel that their work has grown till it is beyond their control and comprehension. They have been successful, and hardly know how it has all come about. The men who have been the most successful are often the ones who feel most deeply their inability to meet new emergencies. They believe that there should be some underlying principles which could help them in analyzing what they have already accomplished, and assist them in their further efforts. As their entire object is to produce certain effects on the minds of possible customers, it is not strange that they have turned to psychology in search of such principles. Traditionally the practical business man scouts at theory. Psychology, to the popular mind, is something devoid of all practical application, related to metaphysics, and suited only to the recluse and the hermit. If ever there was ground to expect sarcastic and pessimistic prophecies from the hardheaded business man, it was when it was proposed to establish advertising on a theoretical basis deduced from psychology. Such adverse criticism has, however, been the exception. The American business man is not afraid of theories. He wants them, and the more the better.

The best thought of the advertising world finds expression in the advertising journals and in the addresses delivered by various experts at gatherings of professional advertisers. In 1895 in one of the leading advertising journals appeared the following editorial: "Probably when we are a little more enlightened, the advertisement writer, like the teacher, will study psychology. For, however diverse their occupations may at first sight appear, the advertisement writer and the teacher have one great object in common—to influence the human mind. The teacher has a scientific foundation for his work in that direction, but the advertisement writer is really also a psychologist. Human nature is a great factor in advertising success; and he who writes advertisements without reference to it is apt to find that he has reckoned without his host." The man who penned this editorial was a practical advertiser, but he admitted of no incongruity between the practical and the theoretical.

In Publicity, for March, 1901, appeared a leading article on psychology and advertising. The following is a quotation from it:—

"The time is not far away when the advertising writer will find out the inestimable benefits of a knowledge of psychology. The preparation of copy has usually followed the instincts rather than the analytical functions. An advertisement has been written to describe the articles which it was wished to place before the reader; a bit of cleverness, an attractive cut, or some other catchy device has been used, with the hope that the hit or miss ratio could be made as favorable as possible. But the future must needs be full of better methods than these to make advertising advance with the same rapidity as it has during the latter part of the last century. And this will come through a closer knowledge of the psychological composition of the mind. The so-called 'students of human nature' will then be called successful psychologists, and the successful advertisers will be likewise termed psychological advertisers. The mere mention of psychological terms, habit, self, conception, discrimination, association, memory, imagination and perception, reason, emotion, instinct and will, should create a flood of new thought that should appeal to every advanced consumer of advertising space."

In in address before the Agate Club of Chicago the speaker said: "As advertisers, all your efforts have been to produce certain effects on the minds of possible customers. Psychology is, broadly speaking, the science of the mind. Art is the doing and science is the understanding how to do, or the explanation of what has been done. If we are able to find and to express the psychological laws upon which the art of advertising is based, we shall have made a distinct advance, for we shall have added the science to the art of advertising."

In a recent address before the Atlas Club of Chicago the speaker said: "In passing to the psychological aspect of our subject, advertising might properly be defined as the art of determining the will of possible customers. . . . Our acts are the resultants of our motives, and it is your function in commercial life to create the motives that will effect the sale of the producer's wares."

In response to this felt need on the part of the advertiser, several students of psychology have tried to select those principles of psychology which might be of benefit to the advertiser, and to present them to the advertising world through pamphlets,1 magazine articles,2 public addresses,3 and, in one case at least, by means of a book.4

The method employed by the psychologist in attempting to give advertising a theoretical basis has been quite uniform. He has first analyzed the human mind into its various activities, then analyzed advertisements to discover what there is in them that may or may not awaken the activity desired. This method can best be understood from an example. For an illustration we shall consider Mental Imagery as understood by the psychologist and in its application to advertising.

The man who is born blind is not only unable to see objects, but he is equally unable to imagine how they look. After we have looked at objects we can see them in our mind's eye with more or less distinctness, even if our eyes are closed or the object is far removed from us. When we imagine how an absent object looks we are said to have a visual image of it. We cannot imagine how a thing looks unless we have actually seen it in our previous experience. The imagination can take the data of former experience and unite them into new forms, but all the details of the new formation must be taken from the former experience of the individual.

The man who is born deaf can neither hear nor imagine what sounds are like. Whatever we have heard, we can live over again in imagination,—we can form auditory images of it. We cannot imagine any sound which we have not actually heard, although we can unite into new combinations the sounds and tones which we have experienced.

I can imagine how beefsteak tastes, but I cannot imagine the taste of hashish, for in all my past experience I never have tasted it, and do not even know which one of my former experiences it is like. If I knew that it tasted like pepper, or like pepper and vinegar mixed, I could form some sort of an image of its taste; but as it is I am perfectly helpless when I try to imagine it. I can, with more or less success, imagine how everything tastes which I have eaten, but I cannot imagine the taste of a thing which I have not touched to my tongue. Analogous descriptions could be given of images of movements, of smell, of touch, of heat, of cold, of pressure, and of pain.

We have no direct knowledge of the minds of our neighbors; we assume that their thinking is very much like ours, for their actions—outward expressions of thought—are so similar to ours. It was formerly assumed that, given any particular object of thought, all normal minds would reach the same conclusion concerning it, and, furthermore, the different stages in the line of thought and the "mind stuff" would be the same throughout. Such a conception is wholly false. Normal minds reach different conclusions under apparently identical outward circumstances, but there is a greater difference in the terms of thought, or the mind stuff with which the thinking is done. One man thinks in terms of sight. He is said to be "eye-minded." His thinking is a rapid succession of pictures. When he thinks of a violin he thinks rather how it looks than how it sounds.

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