A Definition of Advertising

Table of Contents0.1 by1 Richard F. Taflinger by Richard F. Taflinger This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996. How advertising works requires a definition of what advertising is. One definition of advertising is: “Advertising is the nonpersonal communication of information usually paid for and usually persuasive in nature […]


F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since
28 May 1996.

How advertising works requires a definition of what
advertising is.

One definition of advertising is:
“Advertising is the nonpersonal communication of information usually paid
for and usually persuasive in nature about products, services or ideas by
identified sponsors through the various media.”(Bovee, 1992, p. 7) So much
for academic doubletalk. Now let’s take this statement apart and see what it


First, what is “nonpersonal”? There
are two basic ways to sell anything: personally and nonpersonally. Personal
selling requires the seller and the buyer to get together. There are advantages
and disadvantages to this. The first advantage is time: the seller has time to
discuss in detail everything about the product. The buyer has time to ask
questions, get answers, examine evidence for or against purchase.

A second advantage of personal selling is
that the seller can see you. The person rhe’s selling to. Rhe
can see your face, see how the sales message is getting across. If you yawn or
your eyes shift away, you’re obviously bored, and the seller can change
approach. Rhe can also see if you’re hooked, see what features or benefits have
your attention, and emphasize them to close the sale.

Finally, the seller can easily locate
potential buyers. If you enter a store, you probably have an interest in
something that store sells. Street vendors and door-to-door sellers can simply
shout at possibilities, like the Hyde Park (London) vendors who call out, “I say
there, Guv’nor, can you use a set of these dishes?”, or knock at the door
and start their spiel with an attention grabber. From there on they fit their
message to the individual customer, taking all the time a customer is willing
to give them.

Disadvantages do exist. Personal selling is,
naturally enough, expensive, since it is labor-intensive and deals with only
one buyer at a time. Just imagine trying to sell chewing gum or guitar picks
one-on-one; it would cost a dollar a stick or pick.

In addition, its advantage of time is also a
disadvantage. Personal selling is time-consuming. Selling a stereo or a car can
take days, and major computer and airplane sales can take years.

Nonetheless, although personal selling
results in more rejections than sales, and can be nerve-racking, frustrating
and ego destroying for the salesperson, when the salesperson is good it is more
directed and successful than advertising.

From the above, it appears that personal
selling is much better than advertising, which is nonpersonal. This is true.
Advertising has none of the advantages of personal selling: there is very
little time in which to present the sales message, there is no way to know just
who the customer is or how rhe is responding to the message, the message cannot
be changed in mid-course to suit the customer’s reactions.

Then why bother with advertising? Because its
advantages exactly replace the disadvantages of personal selling, and can
emulate some of the advantages. First let’s look at the latter.

First, advertising has, comparatively
speaking, all the time in the world. Unlike personal selling, the sales message
and its presentation does not have to be created on the spot with the customer
watching. It can be created in as many ways as the writer can conceive, be
rewritten, tested, modified, injected with every trick and appeal known to
affect consumers. (Some of the latter is the content of this book.)

Second, although advertisers may not see the
individual customer, nor be able to modify the sales message according to that
individual’s reactions at the time, it does have research about customers. The
research can identify potential customers, find what message elements might
influence them, and figure out how best to get that message to them. Although
the research is meaningless when applied to any particular individual, it is
effective when applied to large groups of customers.

Third, and perhaps of most importance,
advertising can be far cheaper per potential customer than personal selling.
Personal selling is extremely labor-intensive, dealing with one customer at a
time. Advertising deals with hundreds, thousands, or millions of customers at a
time, reducing the cost per customer to mere pennies. In fact, advertising
costs are determined in part using a formula to determine, not cost per
potential customer, but cost per thousand potential customers.

Thus, it appears that advertising is a good
idea as a sales tool. For small ticket items, such as chewing gum and guitar
picks, advertising is cost effective to do the entire selling job. For large
ticket items, such as cars and computers, advertising can do a large part of
the selling job, and personal selling is used to complete and close the sale.

Advertising is nonpersonal, but effective.


Communication means not only speech or
pictures, but any way one person can pass information, ideas or feelings to
another. Thus communication uses all of the senses: smell, touch, taste, sound
and sight. Of the five, only two are really useful in advertising — sound and


Smell is an extremely strong form of
communication. However, when it comes to advertising, it is not very useful. A
smell can immediately evoke memories. Remember times when you’ve smelled
something and what memories came to your mind. The smell could be a perfume or
aftershave that reminds you of Sheila or George. It could be popcorn, newly
mown grass, char-broiling steak, or roses. Any smell can conjure up a memory
for you.

However, that is smell’s greatest problem for
advertising. Although a smell can evoke a memory, everyone’s memories are
different. For example, the smell of hay in a cow barn always reminds me of my
grandfather’s farm in Indiana
and the fun I had there as a child. To others, however, that same smell makes
them think a cow had an accident in the living room, not at all the same
response as mine. If an advertiser wanted to make me nostalgic about farms and
grandparents, the smell would be perfect. To others the smell might evoke ideas
of cow accidents or the pain of having to buck bales on a hot summer day,
neither image of much use in making a product appealing.

The point is, the effect of using smell in
advertising cannot be controlled by the advertiser. Although many people smell
the same things, what they associate with those smells varies with each person.
Without some control, smell is a very weak form of communication for


Touch has a limitation that makes it of little
use to advertising — the customer has to come in actual contact with the item
to be touched. Thus the item must actually exist and be put in a medium that
can carry it. This puts touch more in the realm of personal selling than

It is possible to use touch for a limited
number of products. For example, samples of cloth or paper can be bound into
magazines. The potential customer can thus feel percale or the texture of
corduroy, tell through touch the difference between slick magazine stock,
embossing, Classic Laid or 100% rag paper. However, for the majority of
products touch is useless for advertising.


Taste is probably the least useful
communication channel available to advertising. Like touch, taste requires the
potential customer to come in actual physical contact with the product.
However, taste is even more limited than touch. There are few products other
than food for which taste is a major selling point, and there is virtually no
medium in which an ad can be placed that people are likely to lick; I’m sure
few people are going to lick a magazine page or the TV screen, nor get much
sense of what the product tastes like from them. It is possible to use direct
mail, sending samples to homes, but that is an expensive way to advertise.

Thus, taste is much more effective in
personal selling, such as sampling foods in supermarkets or in door-to-door


The remaining two senses, sound and sight,
are the most effective and easily used channels of communication available to
advertising. For these reasons virtually all advertising relies on them.


Sound is extremely useful for advertising. It
can be used in a variety of media, from radio and television to the new technology
of binding micro-sound chips in magazines to present 20-second sales messages.
It is also capable of presenting words and “theatre of the mind.”

Words, the method by which humans communicate
their ideas and feelings, are presented by sound, by speaking aloud. Through
the use of words it is possible to deliver logical arguments, discuss pros and
cons, and evoke emotions.

More, through the use of sound it is possible
to create what is called “the theatre of the mind.” What this means
is that sound can conjure in the listener’s mind images and actions that don’t
necessarily exist. For example, if you want to create before the mind’s eye the
image of a party, you need merely use the sound effects of people talking and
laughing, the tinkle of glasses and ice, perhaps music in the background. Even
easier, tape record a party and play it back. To evoke images of a soft spring
day the sounds of a breeze rustling leaves, the chirrup of insects, the soft
call of birds is sufficient. The listener’s mind will take those sounds,
combine them, make sense of them, and create an image suited to their
individual taste.  For example, a beer commercial may play the sounds of a
bar in the background, and the listener may imagine themselves in their own
favorite bar, and perhaps ordering that brand of beer.

Thus sound, in the forms of words and
effects, are quite useful to the advertiser in affecting a listener.


Sight is arguably the most useful of the
communication channels available to the advertiser. Through sight it is
possible to use both words and images effectively.

Words do not have to be spoken to be
understood. They can be printed, as well. Although it is difficult to put in
written words the emotional impact possible in spoken words, with their inflections
and subtle sound cues, nevertheless written words are unsurpassed for getting
across and explaining complex ideas or arguments.

There is an additional factor in sight that
makes it excellent for advertising. The old clich, “A picture is worth a
thousand words,” is correct. Think how long it takes to describe something
as opposed to showing a picture of it. No matter how many words you use, some
details will be left out that are visible at a glance. Thus sight can quickly
and concisely show a customer what the advertiser wants rher to see, be it a
product or how buying the product can benefit rher.

In addition, the mind does not have to
consciously recognize what the eye sees for it to have an effect on the
subconscious. An advertiser can put many inconspicuous details into a picture
that will affect a customer on the subconscious level. For example, a drop of
water on a rose petal may not consciously register (“I see there’s a drop
of water on this rose”), but will unconsciously leave an impression of
freshness and delicacy. A small child looking upward into the camera, unsmiling
and eyes wide, gives an impression of sadness and vulnerability, not shortness.


The five forms of human communication can be
used to send any message to potential customers. However, not all five are
equal. Smell, touch and taste are of little use, but sound and sight are of
great value and effectiveness.


Information is defined as knowledge, facts or
news. However, you should bear in mind that one person’s information is another
person’s scam, particularly when advertisers talk about their products.

Information comes in many forms. It can be
complete or incomplete. It can be biased or deceptive. Complete information is
telling someone everything there is to know about something: what it is, what
it looks like, how it works, what its benefits and drawbacks are. However, to
provide complete information about anything is time consuming and difficult.
For example, to tell all about a car would require its appearance, manufacture
and manufacturer, what percentage of parts are made in which countries, cost of
upkeep, mileage (city and highway), cost (basic and with any and all
combination of options), sales and excise taxes per state, preparation costs,
insurance costs per state and locale, ride characteristics (noise by db
interior and exterior, ergs required for steering and braking, relative comfort
of seats, length of reach required to use controls, degrees of lean when
cornering), acceleration, braking distance at many different speeds, etc.. All
of this would require a documentary, not a commercial. Complete information is
impossible to provide in an ad.

Thus, for advertising, information must of
necessity be incomplete, not discussing everything there is to know about the
subject. In advertising, what appears is everything the writer thinks the
customer needs to know about the product in order to make a decision about the
product. That information will generally be about how the product can benefit
the customer.

There is, of course, the concept of
affirmative disclosure. This concept requires an advertiser to provide
customers with any information that could materially affect their purchase
decision. Lewis A. Engman, FTC Chair in 1974, said:

“Sometimes the consumer is provided not
with information he wants but only with the information the seller wants him to
have. Sellers, for instance, are not inclined to advertise negative aspects
their products even though those aspects may be of primary concern to the consumer,
particularly if they involve considerations of health or safety . . .”

The Federal Trade Commission deals with such
omissions by demanding affirmative disclosure of such information, and backs up
their demands with the force of law.

Bias is being partial towards something,
feeling that something is better or worse than other things. Biased information
about a product is that which emphasizes what is good and ignores what is bad
about it. In advertising this is not only normal, but necessary. Of course an
advertiser is biased toward rher own product and against the competition:
selling rher product is the way rhe makes rher money, and rher competition’s
sales reduces that income. Thus any advertising will use words and images that
show how good rher product is and/or how poor rher competition’s is. This is
biased information, but recognized and accepted by industry, regulators and
consumers — it is called puffery, the legitimate exaggeration of advertising
claims to overcome natural consumer skepticism.

However, sometimes the biased information
goes beyond legitimate puffery and slips into deception, the deliberate use of
misleading words and images. In other words, deceptive information is lying to the
customer about the qualities of a product. Such deception is illegal, and the
FTC requires the advertiser to cease and desist and, in some instance, to do
corrective advertising to repair any damage.


“. . . paid for . . . ” is pretty
straightforward. If an ad is created and placed in the media, the costs of
creation and time or space in the media must be paid for. This is a major area
in which advertising departs from public relations.

PR seeks to place information about companies
and/or products in the media without having to pay for the time or space. PR
creates news releases and sends them to news media in hopes they will be run.
Often PR departments produce events that will be covered by news media and thus
receive space or time. There is no guarantee that the media will run any of the
PR material.

Advertising doesn’t have that problem. If
time or space is bought in the media, the ads (as long as they follow the
guidelines set down for good taste, legal products and services, etc.) will appear.
The drawback is that ads are clearly designed to extol the virtues of products
and companies, and any ad is perceived by consumers as at least partly puffery.
PR pieces are usually not so perceived.


“Persuasive” stands to reason as
part of the definition of advertising. The basic purpose of advertising is to
identify and differentiate one product from another in order to persuade the
consumer to buy that product in preference to another. The purpose of this book
is to discuss some basic elements of persuasion.


Products, services or ideas are the things
that advertisers want consumers to buy (in the case of ideas, “buy”
means accept or agree with as well as lay out hard, cold cash). However, there
is more involved in products or services than simply items for purchase.
(During the following discussion, “products” will mean products,
services and ideas unless otherwise noted.)

A product is not merely its function. It is
actually a bundle of values, what the product means to the consumer. That
bundle may contain the product’s function, but also the social, psychological,
economic or whatever other values are important to the consumer.

For example, let’s look at a car. If the
function of a car, transportation, is all that is important, then manufacturers
would need only build motorized boxes on wheels, and consumers would be happy
with them. Such is obviously not the case: the number of models and types of
cars is huge, and if consumers didn’t demand the variety it wouldn’t exist.
Consumers must find factors other than mere transportation just as, if not more

Perhaps the value is social. The type of car
a person drives is often indicative of that person’s social status. A clunker
shows a lower status than a Rolls Royce. A sports car shows that a person is
(or wishes to be perceived as) more socially active and fun-loving than a
person in a sedan or station wagon. The type of car can even indicate which
social grouping a person wants to be considered a part of: in the 1980s Volvos
and BMWs were the car for Yuppies.

Perhaps the value is psychological. Some cars
may make a person feel safer, or sexier, or give them self-esteem or enjoyment.
Since the purpose of this book is to discuss psychological values and how to
appeal to them, I’ll go no further at this point.

Perhaps the value is economic. Some cars may
be cheaper to run, give better mileage, carry more people or cargo, cause less
damage to the environment.

The above four values, functional, social, psychological
and economic, can stand alone. However, for most consumers, the values are
bundled together in varying proportions. How closely a product approximates an
individual’s proportion of values will often determine whether rhe will buy
that product or not.

Companies, through research, try to determine
what values consumers want in their products, and then advertise to show how
their product satisfies the customers’ bundle of values better than
competitors’ products. To do this, the company must differentiate their product
from competitors. There are three basic differentiations: perceptible,
imperceptible, and induced.


Perceptible differences are those that
actually exist that make one product obviously different from others of the same
kind. The difference may in color or size or shape or brand name or some other
way. In any case, the consumer can easily see that this car or couch or camera
is different from other cars or couches or cameras. Perceptible differences
allow a person to make an instant identification of one product as opposed to


Imperceptible differences are those that
actually exist between one product and others, but are not obvious. For
example, there are imperceptible but profound differences between CP/M, MS-DOS
and Apple and MacIntosh computers. You can’t simply look at a computer and tell
which it is; machines can and usually do look alike. And yet buying either
precludes being able to use software designed for the other.

The same applied to Beta and VHS format VCRs.
Although both are designed to do the same thing, there are differences between
them that are imperceptible on the surface but preclude using the same tapes in
both. There are other differences besides the size of the cassette: the
machines use totally different ways of recording and playing back tapes. Beta
records and plays back diagonally across the tape, VHS records vertically. Such
a difference may seem small, but it means that anything recorded on Beta cannot
be played back on VHS, and vice versa. Also, Beta’s system used more tape per
instant and thus had an advantage in the amount of information per inch of
tape, meaning a better sound and picture but less available time. However, VHS
overcomes its deficit by improved electronics and better processing of what
information it gets per inch of tape. In addition, VHS (read RCA) managed to
corner the market on rental tapes of movies (a major use of VCRs) and VHS has
virtually killed off Beta (read Sony). All the differences between Beta and VHS
are imperceptible: they are also crucial.


For many products, there is no actual
substantive difference between one and another. For many brands of cigarettes,
beer, cleansers and soaps, rice, over-the-counter health products, etc., etc.,
ad nauseam, there is essentially no difference between one brand and another.
These products are called parity products.

For these products, the only way to
differentiate one from another is to induce that difference, to persuade people
that there actually is some difference, and that difference is important to
them. These differences are created through advertising, not through any
inherent difference in the products, and that creation often uses the appeals
and methods discussed in the bulk of this book.

Heidelberg, the working man’s beer. Michelob, the sophisticated
nightlife beer. Bud, the athletic beer. Bud Light, the sexy party beer. Miller
Lite, the fun and funny beer. Coors, the environmental beer. Coors Light, the
fast beer. All of these are images projected onto products that have virtually
no difference between them (taste tests show that few people can tell one from
the other, particularly after having a few of any). This approach depicts the
product in association with a lifestyle. For example, soft drinks show people
having fun, usually athletic fun (a root beer company countered this approach
by calling itself “the sit down soft drink”). Beer ads show people
having fun. Airline ads show people having fun. (Notice a trend here?) They
want you to think that if you use their product, you will enjoy the lifestyle
depicted, and if you don’t, you won’t. Of course, the fact that the product is
not necessary to the lifestyle is ignored.

Another approach is to project an image on a
parity product. Marlboro is rugged male, Virginia Slims is independent female,
Benson & Hedges is intellectual, Camel is cool and sophisticated. That
there is no real difference between one brand of cigarette and another is
beside the point. The point is, if you want the image you must use the product.
This image approach is so successful that a manly man wouldn’t be caught dead
(no pun intended) smoking Virginia Slims or Benson & Hedges — he’d feel
like a sissy wimp (or rather, that is what he thinks his friends would think he

Parity products have the greatest difficulty
differentiating one from another. They must rely on creating a trivial or even
nonexistent difference in the bundle of values their target audience might find
important to their purchase decision. However, if and once that difference is
firmly established in the target audience’s perception, a company can often
rely on habit, brand loyalty and/or cognitive dissonance to get repeat


Identified sponsors means whoever is putting
out the ad tells the audience who they are. There are two reasons for this:
first, it’s a legal requirement, and second, it makes good sense.

Legally, a sponsor must identify rherself as the
sponsor of an ad. This prevents the audience from getting a misleading idea
about the ad or its contents. For example, many ads that appear in newspapers
look like news articles: same typeface, appearance, use of columns, etc.. If
the ad is not identified as such, the audience could perceive it as news about
a product, rather than an attempt to persuade the audience to buy it. Case in
point: what looks like a news article discusses a weight-loss plan. In
journalistic style it talks about the safety, efficacy, and reasonable price of
the product. A reasonable person might perceive the “article” as
having been written by a reporter who had investigated weight-loss programs and
decided to objectively discuss this particular one. Such a perception is
misleading, and illegal. Since it is an ad, somewhere on it there must appear
the word “advertisement” to ensure the audience does not think it is
an objective reporting of news.

Second, it makes good sense for a sponsor to
identify rherself in the ad. If the sponsor doesn’t, it is possible for the
audience to believe the ad is for a competitor’s product, thus wasting all the
time, creativity and money that went into making and placing the ad.


The various media are the non-personal
(remember that?) channels of communication that people have invented and used
and continue to use. These include newspapers, magazines, radio, television,
billboards, transit cards, sandwich boards, skywriting, posters, anything that
aids communicating in a non-personal way ideas from one person or group to
another person or group. They do not include people talking to each other:
first, talking is personal and advertising is non-personal; and second, there
is no way to use people talking to each other for advertising–word-of-mouth is
not an advertising medium, since you can’t control what is said. (The best you
could do is start a rumor, which will undoubtedly distort the message in the
telling, and is more the province of the PR department.)

Thus, to repeat (in case you’ve forgotten by
now), “Advertising is the nonpersonal communication of information usually
paid for and usually persuasive in nature about products, services or ideas by
identified sponsors through the various media.”

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You can reach me by e-mail
at: [email protected]


This page was created by
Richard F. Taflinger, so all the errors, bad links, and lack of style are his

Copyright 1996 Richard
F. Taflinger

This page is subject to fair use policies,
and may not be copied or whole or in part with the express written permission
of the author [email protected].

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