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"

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.

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.

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