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"

[This article, the first of a series of studies of Modern Advertising, has been written by Walter D. Scott, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Northwestern University.—THE EDITORS.]

The only method of advertising known to the ancients was the word of mouth. The merchant who had wares to offer brought them to the gate of a city and there cried aloud, making the worth of his goods known to those who were entering the city, and who might be induced to turn aside and purchase them. We are not more amused by the simplicity of the ancients than we are amazed at the magnitude of the modern systems of advertising. From the day when Boaz took his stand by the gate to advertise Naomi's parcel of land by crying, "Ho, ... turn aside," to the day when Barnum billed the towns for his three-ringed circus, the evolution in advertising had been gradual, but it had been as great as that from the anthropoid ape to P. T. Barnum himself.

As soon as printed symbols were invented the advertising man made use of them to give publicity to his merchandise. We find advertisements engraved on walls and tombs, written on parchment and papyrus, and printed by the first printing presses. Although these various forms of advertising were employed, but little thought and care seem to have been expended upon them. Postells, painted signs, street-car placards, booklets, calendars, almanacs, handbills, magazine and newspaper advertising have now become forms of advertising so well established that we look upon them as a necessity, and are surprised to learn that most of them are modern innovations.

The first advertisement printed in English appeared in the Imperial Intelligencer in March, 1648. Advertising in magazines was not begun until comparatively recent times. For instance, the first advertisement appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1864. In this magazine more space has been devoted to advertising during the past year than the sum total of space for the twenty-four years from 1864 to 1887, inclusive. Indeed, advertising may be said to have been in its swaddling clothes until about the year 1887. The most rapid development has taken place during the last fifteen years. The change has been so great that the leading advertisers say that in comparison with to-day there was in existence fifteen years ago no advertising worthy of the name.

The gain in the quantity of advertising can be seen by observing the increase in the number of pages devoted to advertisements in any of our publications. The month of October is regarded as the typical month, therefore we present the number of pages devoted to advertisements for the month of October in Harper's Magazine for each year from the first appearance of advertisements in that magazine to the present time,—1864, 3 ¼; '65. 2; '66, 3 ; '67, 6; '68, 7 1/3; '69, 5 1/3; '70, 4 ½; '71, 3 ½; '72, 2; '73, 1; '74. 0; '75, 0; '76, 0; '77, 0; '78, 0; '79, 0; '80, 0; '81, 0; '82, 1 ¼; '83, 8 ½; '84, 8; '85, 11 ½; '86, 20; '87, 37; '88, 54; '89, 48: '90, 73; '91 80 ½; '92, 87; '93, 77 ½; '94, 75 ¾; '95, 78 ¼; '96, 73; '97, 80 ¾; '98, 81 ¾; '99, 106 ¾; 1900, 97 ½; '01, 93 ½; '02, 128; '03, 141.

It will be noticed in the data as given above that during the years of special prosperity there was a very great increase in the volume of advertising while there was but a slight falling off following a financial depression. The increase was not pronounced until about 1887, but from that time on it has been very marked, not only in Harper's, but in almost all of our publications.

There has not only been an increase in the number of advertising pages in the individual publications, but the number of publications has increased enormously of recent years. The increase of population in the United States has been rapid during the last fifty years, but the increase in the total number of copies of the different publications has been many fold greater. Thus the distribution of the copies of these periodicals to each individual was as follows:— In 1850 each individual received on the average 18 copies from one or more of these periodicals: in 1860, 29; in 1870, 39; in 1880, 41; in 1890, 74; in 1900, 107.

A significant cause of this increase is the reduction in the subscription price which is made possible because of the profit accruing to such publications from their advertisements. The total income secured from subscriptions for all these publications last year was less than the amount paid for the advertising pages. We have this current year about 20,000 periodicals carrying advertisements, each with a constantly increasing number of pages devoted to them, and with a rapidly advancing rate secured for each advertisement. In addition to this, the increase is phenomenal in the use of booklets, posters. painted signs, street-car placards, almanacs, and many other forms of advertising. One firm is supposed to have distributed 25,000,000 almanacs in a single year.

The expense connected with these various forms of printed advertising reaches far into the millions. One authority puts the total annual expense of printed forms of advertising at six hundred million dollars. This sum does not seem to be an exaggeration. Mr. Post spends as much as six hundred thousand dollars annually in advertising his food products. One million dollars was spent last year in advertising Force. Over six hundred thousand dollars is spent annually in advertising Ayer's remedies; and over one million dollars in advertising Peruna.

The advertising rate has been advanced repeatedly in many magazines during the last few years. Firms which formerly paid but one hundred dollars for a full-page advertisement in the Century Magazine now pay two hundred and fifty dollars for the same amount of space. The Ladies' Home Journal has increased its advertising rate to six dollars for a single agate line (there are fourteen agate lines to the inch), the width of one column, for a single insertion. The cost of a full page for a single issue is four thousand dollars. The Procter & Gamble Co. have made a three years' contract for a single page in each issue, to he devoted to the advertisement of Ivory Soap. For this space they pay four thousand dollars a mouth, forty-eight thousand dollars a year, and one hundred and forty-four thousand dollars for the term of three years. Think of the risk a firm runs in investing four thousand dollars in a single page advertisement! How can they expect to get back the equivalent of such a sum of money from a single advertisement?

There are very many advertisements that do not pay. One man has roughly estimated that seventy-five per cent of all advertisements do not pay; yet the other twenty-five per cent pay so well that there is scarcely a business man who is willing to stand idly by and allow his competitors to do the advertising. The expense connected with advertising has increased; the competition between rival firms has become keener; and consequently the demand for good advertising has become imperative. The number of unsuccessful advertisements are many, and yet the loss incurred in an unsuccessful advertising campaign is so great that many firms stand aghast at the thought of such an undertaking. Many merchants see the necessity of advertising their business, but feel unable to enter the arena and compete with successful rivals.

The day of reckless, sporadic, haphazard advertising is rapidly coming to an end so far as magazine advertising is concerned. Although the number of pages devoted to advertising in our best magazines has increased during the last ten years, the number of firms advertising in these same magazines has decreased. The struggle has been too fierce for any but the strongest. The inefficient advertisers are gradually being eliminated, and the survival of the fittest seems to be a law of advertising as it is of everything else that develops.

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.

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.

The following is a quotation in full of an advertisement of the Vose Piano, but with the words "sewing machine" substituted for "piano." This advertisement, like the one quoted above, contains no illustration, and it will be noted that there is nothing in the text which does not apply equally well to a sewing machine.

Have been Established over 51 Years

They are perfect examples of sewing machine strength. The Construction of the Vose is the result of fifty years of development and the application of the highest mechanical skill to the production of each separate part.

By our easy payment plan, every family in moderate circumstances can own a fine sewing machine. We allow a liberal price for old instruments in exchange, and deliver the sewing machine in your house free of expense. You can deal with us at a distant point the same as in Boston. Send for our descriptive catalogue H, which gives full information.


Many of the advertisements of the Emerson, Weber, Everett, and of a few other piano firms are equally poor attempts to present the desirable features of pianos.

In recent advertisements of the Blasius piano an attempt is made to present a piano as a musical instrument. A music score is used as the background of the advertisement; there is a cut of a young lady playing the piano; and in the text appear these expressions: "Excellent tone," "the sweetest tone I ever heard," "sweet and melodious in tone," "like a grand church organ for power and volume: and a brilliant, sweet-tuned piano in one." Thus the background, the illustration, and the text all unite to awaken images of sound, and to suggest that about a piano which is the real ground for desiring such an instrument.

In determining which foods I shall eat it is a matter of some importance to know how the goods are manufactured, what the prices are, how they are prepared for the table, and whether they are nourishing or harmful to my system. The one essential element, however, is the taste. When I look over a bill of fare I choose what I think will taste good. When I order groceries I order what pleases and tickles my palate. I want the food that makes me smack my lips, that makes my mouth water. Under these circumstances all other considerations are minimized to the extreme.

In advertisements of food products it is surprising to note that many foods are advertised as if they had no taste at all. One would suppose that the food was to be taken by means of a hypodermic injection, and not by the ordinary process of taking the food into the mouth and hence into contact with the organ of taste. The advertisers seem to be at a loss to know what to say about their foods, and so have, in many cases, expressed themselves in such general terms that their advertisements could be applied to any product whatever.

The following is the complete text of a full-page advertisement which appeared in recent magazines. The only change is that here we have substituted "scouring soap" for the name of the commodity:

"The grocer's smile. The smile that won't come off.
More scouring soap the grocer said,
No other brand will do instead;
And o'er his kindly features spread
The smile that won't come off.
Look for the coupon in the package."

The illustration was that of a grocer looking at a package which might as well have been scouring soap as Quaker Oats. There is nothing to suggest taste.

Some advertisers of food are evidently chronic dyspeptics, and take it for granted that all others are in the same condition. They have nothing to say about their foods except that they have wonderful medicinal properties. To me a food which is only healthful savors of hospitals and sickrooms, and is something which a well man would not want.

There are other advertisers who appreciate the epicurean tendency of the ordinary man and woman. They describe food in such a way that we immediately want what they describe. The man who wrote the following advertisement belongs to this class:

"That very old proverb about reaching the heart of a man is best exemplified with Nabisco sugar wafers. A fairy sandwich with an upper and a lower crust of indescribable delicacy, separated with a creamy flavor of lemon, orange, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry, or mint. Ask for your favorite flavor."

The picture represents a beautiful young lady presenting a gentleman with the commodity described.

This advertisement has character and individuality. Its statements could not be applied to anything but foods, and, indeed, to nothing but Nabisco. They do not say that Nabisco is healthy, but when I read them I feel sure that Nabisco would agree with me.

This illustration of the way in which one chapter of psychology (Mental Imagery) can be applied to advertising is but one of a score of illustrations which could be given. Psychology has come to be one of the most fascinating of all the sciences, and bids fair to become of as great practical benefit as physics and chemistry. As these latter form the theoretical basis for all forms of industry which have to do with matter, so psychology must form the theoretical basis for all forms of endeavor which deal with mind.

The householder in glancing through his morning paper has his attention caugnt by the more attractive advertisements. The mechanic in going to and from his place of employment whiles away his time in looking at the display cards in the trolley or the elevated cars. The business man can scarcely pass a day without being forced to look at the advertisements which stare at him from the bill boards. The members of the family turn over the advertising pages in their favorite magazine, not because they are forced to, but because they find the advertisements so interesting and instructive. These persons are oblivious to the enormous expense which the merchant has incurred in securing these results. They are unconscious of the fact that the results secured are the ones sought for, and that in planning the advertising campaign the merchant has made a study of the minds of these same householders, mechanics, business men, and members of the family. Advertising is an essential factor in modern business methods, and to advertise wisely the business man must understand the workings of the minds of his customers, and must know how to influence them effectively,—he must know how to apply psychology to advertising.

1On the Psychology of Advertising. Professor HARLOW GALE, author and publisher: Minneapolis, Minn. 1900.

2Mahin's Magazine, Chicago. This magazine contains monthly articles on The Psychology of Advertising.

3 Found in the published proceedings of the various advertising clubs.

4The Theory of Advertising. By WALTER DILL SCOTT. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co. 1903.

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