A Definition of Advertising


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 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 means.


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 sight.


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 advertising.


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 advertising.

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 sales.


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 cliché, "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 important.

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 another.


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 was).

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 business.


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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Copyright © 1996 Richard F. Taflinger
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