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"

Another man thinks in terms of sound. He is "ear-minded." His thinking is a succession of sounds. When he thinks of his friends he hears their voices, but cannot possibly imagine how they look. He does not know that there are other possible forms of thought, and so assumes that all people think in terms of sound as he does. If he should describe a battle his description would be full of the roar and tumult of the strife. Another man is "motor-minded." He thinks in terms of movements. Even when he looks at a painting he whispers inaudibly to himself a description of the painting. Later when he describes the picture to a friend he may do it in the terms which he whispered to himself when he was looking at the picture.

Thus it has been found that there are great personal differences in normal individuals in their ability to form certain classes of mental images.

All persons seem to be able to form at least unclear and indistinct visual images; most persons seem to have some ability in forming auditory images; very many can imagine movements with some degree of satisfaction. There are many who cannot imagine how pickles taste; others cannot imagine the odor of a flower. There are persons who have a limited ability to form all sorts of images, but most persons have a very decided ability for one class and a corresponding weakness for others. This difference in the ease with which certain classes of images can be formed, as well as the difference in individuals in imagining different classes of sensations, is followed with practical consequences.

In a former age the seller, the buyer, and the commodity were brought together. The seller described and exhibited his wares. The buyer saw the goods, heard of them, tasted them, smelt them, felt, and lifted them. He tested them by means of every sense organ to which they could appeal. In this way the buyer became acquainted with the goods. His perception of them was as complete as it could be made. In these latter days the market-place has given way to the office. The consequent separation of buyer, seller, and commodity made the commercial traveler with his sample case seem a necessity. But, with the glowing volume of business, and with the increased need for more economical forms of transacting business, the printed page, as a form of advertisement, has superseded the market-place, and is, in many cases, displacing the commercial traveler. In this transition from the market-place and the commercial traveler to the printed page, the advertiser must be on his guard to preserve as many as possible of the good features of the older institutions. In the two older forms of barter all the senses of the purchaser were appealed to, if possible, and in addition to this the word of mouth of the seller was added to increase the impressions, and to call special attention to the strong features of the commodity. In the printed page the word of mouth is the only feature which is of necessity entirely absent. Indeed, the printed page cannot appeal directly to any of the senses except the eye, but the argument may be of such a nature that the reader's senses are appealed to indirectly through his imagination.

The function of our nervous system is to make us aware of the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, etc, of the objects in our environment, and the more sensations we receive from an object the better we know it. The nervous system which does not respond to sound or to any other of the sensible qualities is a defective nervous system. Advertisements are sometimes spoken of as the nervous system of the business world. That advertisement of musical instruments which contains nothing to awaken images of sound is a defective adverthement. That advertisement of foods which contains nothing to awaken images of taste is a defective advertisenient. 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.

A person can he appealed to most easily and most effectively through his dominating imagery. Thus one who has visual images that are very clear and distinct appreciates descriptions of scenes. The one who has strong auditory imagery delights in having auditory images awakened. It is in general best to awaken as many different classes of images as possible, for in this way variety is given, and each reader is appealed to in the sort of imagery which is the most pleasing to him, in which he thinks most readily, and by means of which he is most easily influenced.

One of the great weaknesses of the present day advertising is found in the fact that the writer of the advertisement fails to appeal thus indirectly to the senses. How many advertisers describe a piano so vividly that the reader can hear it? How many food products are so described that the reader can taste the food? How many advertisements describe a perfume so that the reader can smell it? How many describe an undergarment so that the reader can feel the pleasant contact with his body? Many advertisers seem never to have thought of this, and make no attempt at such descriptions.

The cause of this deficiency is twofold. In the first place, it is not easy in type to appeal to any other sense than that of sight. Other than visual images are difficult to awaken when the means employed is the printed page. In the second place, the individual writers are deficient in certain forms of mental imagery, and therefore are not adepts in describing articles in terms which to themselves are not significant. This second ground for failure in writing effective advertisemerits will be made clear by the examples taken from current advertisements which are quoted below.

A piano is primarily not a thing to look at or an object for profitable investment, but it is a musical instrument. It might be beautiful and cheap, but still be very undesirable. The chief thing about a piano is the quality of its tone. Many advertisers of pianos do not seem to have the slightest appreciation of this fact.

When they attempt to describe a piano they seem as men groping in the dark. Their statements are general and meaningless. As an example of such a failure the advertisement of the Knabe Piano is typical:—


Its successful growth and experience of nearly seventy years guarantees to new friends the greatest degree to tried and tested excellence, judged from any standpoint of criticism or comparison.


This is a half-page advertisement, but it contains no illustration, makes no reference to tone or to any other quality of music, and does not even suggest that the Knabe is a musical instrument at all. Many advertisers describe the appearance and durability of the case or the cost of the entire instrument, but ordinarily their statements are so general that the advertisement could be applied equally well to perfumes, fountain pens, bicycles, automobiles, snuff, or sausages, but would be equally inefficient if used to advertise any of them. They do not describe or refer in any way to the essential characteristics of a piano. They awaken no images of sound; they do not make us hear a piano in our imagination.

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