What Is the Philosophy of Advertising?
The late Bill Bernbach, "Advertising Age's" most influential advertising person of the 20th century, once cautioned that "advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art." Philosophy typically relates to the sciences and liberal arts. Advertising is neither a science nor a liberal art. However, advertising as a "practical art" uses knowledge and techniques borrowed from science and liberal arts to create ad messages that persuade.
Advertising relies on findings from behavioral sciences, because these findings aid in a better understanding of why and how people buy products and react to advertising stimuli. Moreover, advertising borrows heavily from rhetoric, one of the pillars of the liberal arts, in crafting persuasive advertising messages. Thus, advertising as a practical art remains closely aligned with the sciences and liberal arts in terms of employing the tools and techniques of persuasion. Consequently, the philosophy of advertising might be expressed in terms of understanding how science and liberal arts shape schools of thought on persuasion to affect consumer decision making.
Advertising is the art of persuasion. Persuasion is the process of negotiating the acceptance of an advertising message as a truth. Audiences can accept or reject an advertiser's message as true based on an ontology of cognition -- using the mental faculties to process information, an ontology of emotions -- intuitive beliefs, or both cognition and emotions. These two ontological sources of truth are manifest in two schools of persuasive argument in advertising: the cognitive school and the emotional school of persuasion. It is quite common to see evidence of both schools of persuasion at work in single advertisements.
The cognitive school of persuasion appeals to logic or reason as the basis for validating truths in advertising messages. The appeals focus on unique rational benefits that come from using products or services, which are derived from unique product or service attributes. The late Harvard Business School Marketing Professor, Ted Levitt, once commented that "people buy 1/4-inch drill bits not because they want a 1/4-inch drill bit, but because they want a 1/4-inch hole". Of course, a 1/4-inch hole is not unique. Bill Bernbach addressed the uniqueness mandate by challenging his associates to find the superiority and distinction in a product. Where none exists, make it exist.
Truth in the emotional school is informed by beliefs. The emotional school focuses on messaging and imagery that instill positive feelings of trust that brands consistently deliver satisfying user experiences. In essence, people believe an ad message is true because they "trust" the brand. Ads that generate positive emotions have a greater ability to engage audiences, thereby making emotional advertising more memorable. Millward Brown, a global brand consultancy, found that emotional appeal ads have greater audience involvement than ads focused on delivering a rational message. Moreover, ads that are more memorable have a greater likelihood of generating a sales effect.
Because of the dearth of literature on the subject, the jury is seemingly still out as to whether there is such a thing as a philosophy of advertising. However, within the context of the philosophy of advertising being the body of knowledge that drives the advertising process, you will find this knowledge contained in the two schools of advertising persuasion. The two schools enjoy mutual co-existence. Many advertising practitioners avow that the best advertising employs both schools of persuasion in one ad.