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Six models of advertising

All theories of how advertising works have their uses but individually all are dangerous if
they are taken too literally as the truth. This article summarises six main theories and shows
how an understanding of them can help deliver better advertising campaigns.
As anyone who has been involved in advertising will probably know, the question 'How does
advertising work?' has never had an easy or even an adequate answer. Yet it's a question with some
very practical consequences, and possibly some ethical ones too. Does it matter if advertising is
remembered, or whether it is liked? Does a successful ad transmit a message, a proposition, or a
benefit? Does it work subconsciously, through imagery or symbolism, or through the emotions? Or is
it, after all, just a simple matter of fame, 'keeping your name before the public' as one early
practitioner claimed? The ways we deal with advertising, whether as practitioners or as a society,
can't help assuming certain answers to such questions. And yet, despite a huge and frequently
confusing body of research on the subject, the questions remain problematic.
In my book, The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising, I've
approached the topic in a different way. I've not attempted to answer the question 'How does
advertising work?', but instead I've reviewed the principal ways in which advertising practitioners
have found their own answers to it over the past century or more. What became clearer to me in the
process of writing and I hope may also become clearer to the reader is that none of the
competing theories is absolutely wrong. Yet, any one of them, on its own, is far from being
sufficiently right. Each theory, considered as a metaphor, image or 'way of seeing' could be useful
just as each, taken too dogmatically as 'truth', could become a limitation.
I ended up with six main theories, or 'ways of thinking about advertising', each of which is discussed
at length in the book (especially the first two). Here's a very brief summary of each of them.

1. Advertising as salesmanship
In 1904, John E. Kennedy blagged his way into the offices of Lord & Thomas, then the world's
largest agency, to tell its managing director, Albert Lasker, that advertising was 'salesmanship in
print'. Lasker was so impressed he hired Kennedy on the spot, and made 'salesmanship in print' the
core of everything Lord & Thomas did. From this original insight, we can trace most of the key ideas
that still dominate advertising thinking: conscious attention, factual persuasion, the 'reason why', the

'proposition', transmission and recall of the advertising 'message', the necessity of comprehension
and credibility.
Such principles, elaborated and built on by later influential writers such as Claude Hopkins and
Rosser Reeves, are still the default assumptions of most advertising practitioners (not excluding
creatives), and continue to form the basis of most briefing forms and research methodologies. This is
in spite of the facts that 'salesmanship' models can themselves lead to contradictory practices (e.g.
whether to prioritise 'facts' or 'attention-getting'), and that many successful ads can't be made to fit
this model easily, or at all. As a result, some people are inclined to attack this model as wrong. Yet,
this would also perhaps be a mistake, as all these principles can also lead to very effective
advertising in certain contexts, including, but by no means limited to, direct response. In my book I
conclude that "The idea that there might be a proposition and that there might be a reason why in
your ad is exciting. It opens up possibilities. The idea that there has to be a proposition or that there
has to be a reason why in your ad is deadening. It closes down possibilities and it may force you
into talking nonsense".

2. Advertising as seduction
About the time Kennedy walked into Lasker's Chicago office, Walter Dill Scott, a psychology
professor at nearby Northwestern, was hypothesising that much of the effect of advertising was
unconscious and driven by non-verbal, emotional associations. This basic idea, which I label
'seduction', has generally appeared in direct conflict with the proposition-based 'salesmanship'
model. It became very popular in the 1950s, as popularised by the so-called 'motivation researchers'
such as Ernest Dichter and Pierre Martineau. It was then firmly put back in its box for a while by
Vance Packard's book The Hidden Persuaders, and Rosser Reeves' thunderous denunciation of
'The Freudian Hoax': "There are no hidden persuaders. Advertising works openly, in the bare and
pitiless sunlight."
But it resurfaced, in less Freudian language, under the auspices of the account planning movement
and during the past 20 years or so has been given a great deal more credibility through new
research into neuroscience and the psychology of the 'adaptive unconscious', as supported by
scientists such as Damasio, Wilson and Kahneman, and advertising researchers such as Robert
Heath and Phil Barden. Today, it's hard to argue with the idea that advertising largely works through
subconscious associations and emotional triggers, symbols and metaphors. Yet, it's more arguable

whether our scientific understanding of this is enough to create successful campaigns, which still
depend in practice on intuition, human sensitivity and luck.

3. Advertising as salience
And what if all the above is unnecessarily overcomplicating something much simpler? Byron Sharp
and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute have argued for some time that advertising is
nothing more than 'mere publicity' and simply creating enhanced 'mental availability' for a brand
through 'meaningless distinctiveness' is all that really matters. Whether this really does explain
everything is a matter that will continue to be argued about. But without much doubt, it explains a lot,
such as the strong and predictable relationship between brand performance and relative share of
voice regardless of creative content, or the fact that the most successful campaigns in the IPA
Effectiveness Awards have been those that create 'fame'. Arguably, many advertisers could get
better value from their advertising if they focused on this simple principle. And this, too, is not a new
idea: one of the earliest theories of advertising was 'keeping your name before the public'.

4. Advertising as social connection

When I started in advertising at BMP, my boss, Martin Boase, used to say something like this to me:
'We believe that if you're going to invite yourself into someone's living room for 30 seconds, you
have a duty not to bore them or insult them by shouting at them. On the other hand, if you can make
them smile if you're a charming guest then they may like you a bit better, and then they may be a
little more likely to buy your product.'
At the time I thought this sounded sensible enough, though hardly scientific. But many years later, I
discovered the work of Paul Watzlawick, considered by many the most important contributor to
communications theory in the 20th century. Watzlawick, a psychotherapist, saw communication as
much more than a mere exchange of content: it is the way people construct and maintain
relationships with each other. And most important in doing this are the non-verbal, non-rational
aspects of communication the gesture, the tone of voice. This same thinking can be applied to
advertising, and seems a good way of explaining why 30 seconds of pure entertainment can be such
a powerful influence on people's behaviour pretty much, in fact, as Boase explained it.

5. Advertising as spin

In an interesting parallel history, while Hopkins, Reeves and Bernbach were creating modern
advertising practice, Edward Bernays was forming the practice of public relations. Bernays
understood all the principles of advertising I've described already, especially emphasising the power
of pictures and emotions rather than words and logic, and the power of creating personal
relationships (as in Franklin D Roosevelt's famous 'fireside chats' on the radio). But what he
understood most of all was that the best methods of influencing public opinion were invisible. The
best PR is never seen to be advocating or arguing it simply aims to create the reality that people
experience. As a commentator on Bernays has written: "His aim was to transform the buyer's very
world, so that the product must appear to be desirable as if without the prod of salesmanship."
Advertising often achieves this too.

6. Advertising as showmanship
Before Walter Dill Scott or John E. Kennedy, there was Phineas T. Barnum. Born in 1810, he's often
considered the father of modern mass publicity even though the advertising business has often
found him rather embarrassing. Barnum was a showman. He started with freak shows, and worked
up to promoting concerts and the three-ring circus that bore his name. His unique talent was his
ability to get people talking about and visiting his shows, and he didn't care how he did it. He'd
offer the most outrageous fakes just to create controversy. He used new technology wherever he
could (such as inventing the circus train). He would have totally understood what 'going viral' meant.
He was deadly serious about what he did, but never appeared to take himself too seriously, and
always described what he did as 'humbug': "Humbug consists in putting on glittering appearances
outside show novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public
eye and ear An honest man who thus arrests public attention will be called a 'humbug', but he is
not a swindler or an impostor."
I warmed to Barnum as I read about him, and wondered what we could learn from him today. Maybe
we should spend less time arguing about whether advertising is an art or a science, and accept that
to a large extent it's just showmanship or even humbug. At any rate, it's the theory that perhaps
makes the best sense of dancing ponies, singing cats, or a strong man doing the splits between two


I want to emphasise two things. First, that these six ways of thinking about advertising aren't meant
as a way of classifying ads. It's not a case of some ads work this way, some that way, because most
ads, I am fairly sure, can be made to fit most of these models. Paradoxically, the model that is
probably least broad in its applicability is the one that is still the most dominant the message
model. But that is not to say that it doesn't still have a lot to offer. Any model that seems to apply may
be useful.
This will not, I know, appeal to people who are addicted to certainty and objectivity and classification.
But such people had better not have too much responsibility for developing advertising.
Second, the number six is quite arbitrary, though it has a certain pleasing neatness about it. Without
doubt, we could add to this list of ways of thinking about advertising, and the only limit would be
when it got too complicated to be helpful. Since I put this book to bed, some months ago now, I've
been thinking about others I could have included. For instance, there's one which I could call
Advertising as Signposting, the apparently humble but often crucial role advertising plays in telling
you how to find what you're looking for. This is, in a way, where 'advertising' began, and what the
English word literally means (turning you towards something) and it's an element in many
campaigns from retail signage to search engine optimisation.
And there could be one called Advertising as Presentation (they don't, after all, have to begin with
the letter S). Another of my first bosses, David Batterbee, claimed to have learnt his advertising craft
on a market stall, when he was told to cut the leaves off the cauliflowers. How much is advertising
just a matter of making something appear more attractive?
We can no doubt debate (and needn't agree about) how my taxonomy of ideas could be improved,
either by extending it or perhaps narrowing it. The fundamental point that I want to propose is that
we will understand advertising better if we start by accepting that we will never fully understand it
and that holding a number of theories lightly, as metaphors rather than facts, will be more productive,
creative and effective than getting trapped in any particular dogma. That may seem, to some of you,
a radical thought: but that is, specifically, the way in which my book invites you to 'think differently'
about advertising.