How often have you seen a teeth-whitening ad that shows the person with bright, white teeth as more attractive — sexier even?

Or viewed an ad for a green cleaning product that made you fearful that using a chemical product would harm your kids?

Or just think of any product — diet food, skin care, insurance company, car, medication — that features celebrity testimonials or the words of other consumers who’ve achieved “incredible results.”

For these common advertising ploys, you can thank John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism here in America.

After getting fired from his academic post at Johns Hopkins, Watson began working for one of the biggest advertising agencies in New York City, J. Walter Thompson. (He was dismissed for his scandalous divorce. Short story: He fell in love with a graduate student while he was married to a woman who was one of his undergraduate students 17 years earlier.)

He believed that in order for advertising to be effective, it should appeal to three innate emotions: love, fear and rage.

As Ludy Benjamin and David Baker write in From Séance to Science: A History of the Profession of Psychology in America, Watson’s “…ads sold toothpaste, not because of its dental hygiene benefits, but because whiter teeth would presumably increase an individual’s sex appeal” (p. 121).

Watson also believed in doing market research, which meant that he applied objective, scientific approaches to advertising. For instance, according to C. James Goodwin in A History of Modern Psychology, Watson used “demographic data to target certain consumers” (p. 316). And, as stated above, Watson promoted the use of celebrity endorsements.

Before Watson, three other psychologists become pivotal players in advertising.

The first psychologist to work in advertising was Harlow Gale, though he played a minor role. In 1895, he sent a questionnaire to 200 businesses in Minnesota inquiring about their perspectives on advertising and their practices.

Gale was interested in learning how people processed ads “from the time they see the advertisement until they have purchased the article advertised.” Unfortunately, only 10 percent of the businesses actually returned their responses. (Advertising firms would later change their tune, eventually teaming up with psychologists, as evidenced above with Watson.) Gale discontinued his advertising work.

Walter Dill Scott published a book on advertising in 1903 called The Theory and Practice of Advertising. Interestingly, he asserted that people were highly suggestible and obedient.

Scott wrote “Man has been called the reasoning animal but he could with greater truthfulness be called the creature of suggestion. He is reasonable, but he is to a greater extent suggestible” (Benjamin & Baker, p. 119-120).

Scott believed in using two advertising techniques, which involved commands and coupons: 1) stating a direct command such as “Use such and such beauty product” and 2) asking consumers to complete a coupon and mail it into the company.

While there was no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of Scott’s advertising techniques (there were testimonials), he was critical in psychology’s participation in advertising.

Scott’s ideas became incredibly popular. As Benjamin and Baker write, “Scott gave scientific credibility to psychology’s involvement with advertising and opened the doors for other psychologists who would enter the field, such as Harry Hollingworth and John B. Watson…”(p. 120).

(Check out this 1904 article by Scott on the psychology of advertising in Atlantic Magazine!)

Speaking of Harry Hollingworth, he was really behind the use of effective advertising.

He believed that advertising had to accomplish four things:

  1. Attract a consumer’s attention
  2. Focus the attention onto the message
  3. Make the consumer remember the message and
  4. Cause the consumer to take the desired action (this really determined the effectiveness of an ad)

In addition to proposing this paradigm, Hollingworth pursued its testing. He wanted to isolate the parts of an ad that were the most effective by using his approach.

Initially, he tested his approach by evaluating multiple ads for various products, such as soap, that companies had sent to him. The companies had a relatively good idea of the effectiveness of their ads based on sales data. Hollingworth gave each ad his own rating. When his rating was compared to the sales data, the correlation was .82. (1 would mean a perfect correlation.)

By the 1930s, a slew of other psychologists followed in these pioneers’ footsteps and became fixtures in the advertising world.

Check out this article (with really interesting video clips) about the advertising agencies on Madison Avenue in the ‘60s.

What are your thoughts on psychology’s role in advertising? What do you think about advertising in general?


Benjamin, L.T., & Baker, D.B. (2004). Industrial-organizational psychology: The new psychology and the business of advertising. From Séance to Science: A History of the Profession of Psychology in America (pp.118-121). California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Goodwin, C.J. (1999). Applying the new psychology: Applying psychology to business. A History of Modern Psychology (pp. 242). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Goodwin, C.J. (1999). The origins of behaviorism: A new life in advertising. A History of Modern Psychology (pp. 315-317). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Photo by Andrew Atzert, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.