Advertising is paid, nonpersonal communication that is designed to communicate in a creative manner, through the use of mass or information-directed media, the nature of products, services, and ideas. It is a form of persuasive communication that offers information about products, ideas, and services that serves the objectives determined by the advertiser. Advertising may influence consumers in many different ways, but the primary goal of advertising is to increase the probability that consumers exposed to an advertisement will behave or believe as the advertiser wishes. Thus, the ultimate objective of advertising is to sell things persuasively and creatively. Advertising is used by commercial firms trying to sell products and services; by politicians and political interest groups to sell ideas or persuade voters; by not-for-profit organizations to raise funds, solicit volunteers, or influence the actions of viewers; and by governments seeking to encourage or discourage particular activities, such a wearing seatbelts, participating in the census, or ceasing to smoke. The forms that advertising takes and the media in which advertisements appear are as varied as the advertisers themselves and the messages that they wish to deliver.
The word "advertise" originates from the Latin advertere, which means to turn toward or to take note of. Certainly, the visual and verbal commercial messages that are a part of advertising are intended to attract attention and produce some response by the viewer. Advertising is pervasive and virtually impossible to escape. Newspapers and magazines often have more advertisements than copy; radio and television provide entertainment but are also laden with advertisements; advertisements pop up on Internet sites; and the mail brings a variety of advertisements. Advertising also exists on billboards along the freeway, in subway and train stations, on benches at bus stops, and on the frames around car license plates. In shopping malls, there are prominent logos on designer clothes, moviegoers regularly view advertisements for local restaurants, hair salons, and so on, and live sporting and cultural events often include signage, logos, products, and related information about the event sponsors. The pervasiveness of advertising and its creative elements are designed to cause viewers to take note.
The Functions of Advertising
Although the primary objective of advertising is to persuade, it may achieve this objective in many different ways. An important function of advertising is the identification function, that is, to identify a product and differentiate it from others; this creates an awareness of the product and provides a basis for consumers to choose the advertised product over other products. Another function of advertising is to communicate information about the product, its attributes, and its location of sale; this is the information function. The third function of advertising is to induce consumers to try new products and to suggest reuse of the product as well as new uses; this is the persuasion function.
The identification function of advertising includes the ability of advertising to differentiate a product so that it has its own unique identity or personality. One famous example of this is found in the long-running advertising for Ivory Soap. In the late 1800s, a soap maker at Procter and Gamble left his machine running during his lunch period and returned to find a whipped soap that, when made into bars, floated. The company decided to capitalize on this mistake by advertising Ivory Soap with the phrase "It Floats." This characteristic of Ivory Soap served to uniquely identify it and differentiate it from other bars of soap.
The information function of advertising can also be found in advertising for Ivory Soap. For more than one hundred years, advertisements for Ivory Soap have focused on such product characteristics as purity of ingredients, child care, and soft skin. These characteristics, in turn, were often related to key benefits that could be obtained from using Ivory Soap. Thus, various advertisements emphasized "That Ivory Look," which focused on the relationships between product characteristics and the benefits of obtaining a fresh and healthy appearance.
The third and most important function of advertising, persuasion, is also evident in the long-running Ivory Soap advertising campaigns. The advertiser, Procter and Gamble, has linked Ivory Soap with obtaining benefits that are important to customers: a fresh and healthy appearance for women, a mild, nonirritating method for bathing babies, and a novelty for children in the tub (since it floats). The benefits of the product suggest reasons to buy and use Ivory Soap and thus provide a basis for persuading consumers. Different benefits are important to different customers. Thus, to realize its full potential as a persuasive tool, advertising must often be tailored to emphasize those benefits that are important and meaningful for a particular type of customer or a particular use of the product.
Advertising has a very long history. It existed in ancient times in the form of signs that advertised wares in markets. In Europe and colonial America, criers were often employed by shopkeepers to shout a message throughout a town. Medicine shows, in which there was a combination of entertainment and an effort to sell a product, usually a patent medicine or elixir, presaged modern advertising by creating an entertainment context in which advertising was embedded. Advertising became especially important in the second half of the nineteenth century as retailers began to advertise products and prices that would bring customers to their stores. Advertising for patent medicines also played a prominent role in the development of advertising, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the firms that would become advertising agencies had already begun to form.
Advertising and Psychology
Although advertising has a very long history, serious study of advertising and its effects on consumers did not begin until early in the twentieth century. Psychologists began to recognize that advertising was an important form of communication and began to apply the theories and methods of psychology to its study. Individuals such as Harlow Gale began to conduct experiments designed to determine the power of individual advertisements to attract attention and persuade consumers to buy. Walter Dill Scott of Northwestern University wrote the book The Theory of Advertising (1903), which sought to build a theoretical understanding of advertising based on the principals of psychological science. Scott suggested that advertisers should develop certain fundamental principles on which to construct a "rational theory of advertising." The work of these psychologists was noted by such advertising professionals as Stanley Resor of the J. Walter Thompson Agency, who, in 1912, commissioned a study of the demographics and purchasing patterns of consumers to understand better both what motivated consumers to buy and how to persuade better those same consumers. Since this early work, psychologists and other social scientists have played an important role in both the study and practice of advertising.
The application of psychological theories to advertising provides an understanding of how consumers process advertising messages and make purchase decisions. Theories of attention, information processing, attitude formation, and decision making all have relevance to understanding how advertising affects consumers. Another important application of psychological principals is to develop an understanding of consumer needs so that products can be developed, designed, and communicated in a manner that reflects the relevant and important needs of consumers.
How Advertising Works
Advertising is a form of communication. Like all forms of communication, it has many different effects and these effects are often related to one another. The message in an advertisement, no matter how strong and persuasive, will have no effect if the consumer does not see the advertisement or pay attention to it. One useful framework for understanding these multiple effects and their interrelationships is called the hierarchy of effects model. The hierarchy of effects model identifies different stages in the communication process. Effective communication must begin by obtaining the attention of the consumer. Then, the consumer must process the information carried in the advertisement. Such processing of information may be followed by an evaluation of the information, the source of the information, and ultimately the desirability of any actions suggested by the communication. This evaluation process may, in turn, give rise to the formation of attitudes, the development of intentions for future action, and, eventually, an action. Different characteristics of an advertisement have effects at different points in this hierarchy.
In the context of advertising, the first hurdle for an advertiser is to obtain the attention of the consumer. This involves two important actions. First, it is important for the advertiser to know where a communication should be place to increase the odds of reaching a particular type of consumer; this is the media decision. Careful analysis of the consumer use of various media (e.g., what television shows they watch, what route they take to work, and what magazines they read) allows the advertisers to identify those media to which target consumers are most likely to be exposed. Placing an advertisement in a place where relevant consumers are unlikely to see it assures that the advertising will be ineffective. However, just because a consumer happens to view a television show or read a magazine in which an advertisement is placed does not a guarantee that the consumer will see the advertisement. The consumer may have left the room when the television commercial aired or may not have read the particular part of the magazine in which the advertisement appeared. Advertisers solve this problem by repeating advertising in the same and in different media in order to increase the probability that a given consumer will actually be exposed to the advertising. Thus, a key task for the advertiser is to identify those media to which relevant consumers regularly attend and develop a schedule of repetition for the advertisement that maximizes the number of consumers who will be exposed to the advertising message. This is typically the responsibility of the media department in an advertising agency.
Exposure to an advertisement still does not mean that a consumer will attend to it. A consumer may simply turn the page of a magazine, look away from the television, or click on a banner advertisement on the Internet to make it go away without ever paying attention to the advertisement. Thus, obtaining the attention of consumers who are, in fact, exposed to an advertisement is a significant challenge for advertisers. Various characteristics of advertisements have been found to increase the likelihood that consumers will attend to an advertisement. Advertisements that include relevant information for the consumer, such as a product benefit that is important to the consumer, are especially likely to attract attention. Information that is new to the consumer is also likely to obtain the attention of the consumer. Various creative devices such as the use of humor, a well-known celebrity, or an especially entertaining presentation also tend to attract attention. The latter devices must be used carefully; if they are not well integrated with the primary message of the advertiser, the consumer may attend to the advertisement, but only focus on the creative device (the humor, the identity of the celebrity) rather the intended message of the advertiser. Advertisers often refer to characteristics of advertisements that gain attention but distract the viewer from the primary message as "creative clutter."
An especially challenging dimension of advertising revolves around balancing the repetition of an advertisement, which is intended to increase the probability of a consumer being exposed to it, with the likelihood the consumer will attend to the advertisement when exposed. Consumers are less likely to attend to advertisements they have already seen, and the more often an individual consumer has seen an advertisement previously the less likely they are to pay attention to it when exposed again. This phenomenon is referred to as "advertising wearout." Wearout can be a particular problem when advertising in markets where the likelihood of advertising exposure varies considerably across consumers. The number of repetitions of the advertisement needed to reach some consumers may be so great that the advertisement wears out among other consumers who are more readily exposed to the advertisement. To combat such wearout, advertisers will often use multiple advertisements that vary in terms of execution or presentation but carry similar messages. Such variation tends to reduce advertising wearout by providing something new to the consumer that serves as the basis for attracting attention.
Consumers may attend to advertisements for a variety of reasons. Attention alone is not sufficient to make the advertising successful. Advertisements that are interesting, entertaining, and even irritating can attract attention; however, such advertisements may not result in the consumer attending to or understanding the intended message of the advertiser. Assuring that consumers attend to and understand the intended message rather than peripheral characteristics (such as a joke or song) requires careful crafting of the advertising message. Advertising research has demonstrated that the message must be clear and meaningful to the consumer; if the consumer does not comprehend the message, it will not have the desired effect. Thus, it is important when creating the advertisement to understand how consumers think about products and product benefits and to use language that the consumer will understand. It is also important that the product and the product message be the focal point of the advertisement. Most of the time or space in the advertisement should be devoted to the product and the product message should be well integrated within the advertisement. Advertising that consists primarily of creative clutter and does not focus on the product is unlikely to be effective. Longer advertisements tend to facilitate better information processing, but the benefit of a longer advertisement may not always be sufficiently large enough to justify the additional costs of a longer advertisement.
An especially important issue in the creation of advertising is related to understanding how much information consumers want about a given product. For some products, consumers may want a great deal of information and may wish to exert a great deal of effort in processing the information. In many cases, however, especially for products of relatively low cost, consumers do not want very much information and are unwilling to process more than a modest amount of product information. In fact, consumers may differ with respect to the amount of information processing they are willing to do even for the same product. Thus, the advertiser must understand how much information individual consumers desire and how much variability exists among consumers with respect to their willingness to process information. Such an understanding not only indicates how much information to put in an advertisement, it also suggests which media may be most appropriate for delivering the message. Complex messages are generally better delivered in print advertising, while simple messages can generally be delivered on television or radio.
After a consumer has processed information, there is a need to evaluate it. The consumers will need to determine how believable the information is and how relevant it is to their individual situation in life and to their behavior as consumers. This evaluation phase poses significant problems for advertisers. Most consumers tend to discount the information in advertising because they understand that the purpose of the advertising is to persuade. Making an advertising message believable is not easy; though often it is sufficient to make the consumer curious enough to try the product. Such curiosity is often referred to as interested disbelief. Advertisers use a variety of devices to increase the believability of their advertising: celebrities or experts who are the spokespersons for the product, user testimonials, product demonstrations, research results, and endorsements.
In some cases, the objective of the advertiser is immediate action by the consumer; this is typical of direct-response advertising where the goal is to have the consumer do something immediately (buy a product, make a pledge, and so on). In most cases, however, there is a lag between advertising exposure and any action on the part of the consumer. In such cases, an important communication goal of an advertiser is to create a positive attitude toward their product. Attitudes are predispositions or tendencies to behave or react in a consistent way over time. There is an affect, or feeling, dimension associated with attitudes, and there are generally various beliefs that provide justification for the feeling and predisposition. The goal of advertising is to have a positive impact on attitudes; these attitudes, in turn, influence future behavior. When the consumer next goes to the store to buy a particular type of product, these attitudes influence the choice of the product.
In some cases, the goal of advertising may be to create negative attitudes. For example, in various antidrug and antismoking public-service announcements, the objective of the communication is to reduce the likelihood that the viewer will use drugs or smoke.
Attitudes and attitude formation are among the most widely researched phenomenon in communication research. Various theories have been offered to explain how attitudes are formed and how they may be reinforced or modified. Advertising plays a role in attitude formation, but it is important to recognize that the advertised product itself is the most important determinant of attitude in the long term. A bad experience with a product will create a negative attitude that no advertising is likely to overcome. On the other hand, advertising can play an especially important role in inducing consumers to try a product for the first time, and if the product is satisfactory, a positive attitude will result. In addition, advertising can reinforce positive attitudes by reminding consumers of product benefits, desirable product characteristics, and positive product experiences.
Intentions and Behavior
Ultimately, the success of advertising rests on whether it influences behavior. Product advertisers want consumers to buy their product; political advertisers want voters to vote for their candidate; and sponsors of public-service announcements related to the harmful effects of smoking want the incidence of smoking to decline. While such effects are of primary interest for understanding the influence of advertising, advertising is only one of many factors that influence such behaviors. A consumer might want to buy an advertiser's product, but may not find it in the store, or another less-desirable product is so much less-expensive that the consumer chooses it instead. It is possible, in some cases, to identify the direct effects of advertising on behavior, but in most cases, there are simply too many other factors that can influence behavior to isolate the effects of advertising. It is for this reason that most advertising research focuses on other effects in the hierarchy of effects. When measuring the direct effect of advertising on behavior is of interest, it is necessary to design carefully controlled experiments to control for all factors other than advertising.
What Advertising Does Not Do
Some writers have argued that advertising can create needs and stimulate unconscious and deep-seated motives. This view has led some critics of advertising to argue that advertising is a persuasive tool with the dangerous potential to create consumer needs. John Kenneth Galbraith, in The New Industrial State (1985), suggests that the central function of advertising is to create desires—to bring into being wants that previously did not exist. It is certainly true that people frequently want things when they become aware that they exist and advertising does contribute to such awareness. It is also the case that people sometimes do not realize that they have a need until they become aware of a solution that meets this need. Advertising is not able to create needs that did not already exist, however. Indeed, advertising is a relatively weak persuasive tool. The evidence of this weakness is abundant and unambiguous. First, the failure rate for new products is very high (approximately 90%). This fact is not consistent with the claim that advertisers can actually mold people's needs. If advertisers could create needs, they should then be able to compel consumers to buy their products. Second, experts argue that advertising works best when it is working with, rather than counter to, the existing interests of the consumers. For example, for many years, low-calorie beer had not been able to find a consumer need to address and the product had limited sales. When the Miller Brewing Company introduced its Lite brand of beer and positioned it as the beer with fewer calories (which "makes it less filling"), it became an instant success.
Advertising has the power to create awareness, inform, and persuade. It is a communication tool of enormous complexity, however. Much advertising does not have its intended effect. The reasons for this failure lie in the variety and complexity of the effects of advertising. Like all successful communication, effective advertising is guided by a thorough understanding of its intended audience and how that audience will receive the intended message.
See also:Advertising, Subliminal; Children and Advertising; Election Campaigns and Media Effects; Internet and the World Wide Web; Public Health Campaigns; Public Relations; Public Relations, Careers in; Public Service Media.
Bly, Robert W. (1998). Advertising Manager's Handbook. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Galbraith, John Kenneth. (1985). The New Industrial State, 4th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Schumann, David W., and Thorson, Esther. (1999). Advertising and the World Wide Web. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Scott, Walter Dill. (1903). The Theory of Advertising.Boston: Small, Maynard.
Stewart, David W. (1994). "How Advertising Works in Mature Markets." American Demographics 16 (Sept.):40-47.
Stewart, David W., and Furse, David H. (1986). Effective Television Advertising: A Study of 10,000 Commercials. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Tellis, Gerard. (1998). Advertising and Sales Promotion Strategy. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Wells, William D.; Burnett, John; and Moriarty, Sandra.(1998). Advertising: Principles & Practice, 4th edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
David W. Stewart
Sarah E. Stewart