A blind man was begging on Madison Avenue. In front of him was a handwritten sign – ‘I AM BLIND’ – and a cup containing just two cents. A passing copywriter asked to add a few more words. When, at the end of the day, the copywriter passed again, the cup was full. ‘What did you write?’ the blind man asked. The copywriter had added just four words: ‘IT IS SPRING AND I AM BLIND’.
The story may be apocryphal, but it suggests at least one difficulty when answering the question ‘How does advertising work?’ The idea of advertising as rational argument seems inadequate here, even though the sign states nothing but simple facts. Even the original, ‘I AM BLIND’, shows the impossibility of separating advertising into ‘information’ and ‘persuasion’. Psychologists might attempt to provide explanations, but perhaps we also need the language of rhetoric, or even art, when trying to explain why the choice of just a few words might prove so motivating.
But advertising encompasses far more than a few words, as Pierre Martineau pointed out in 1957: “Modern advertising is not just a posting of claims, a bare-bones statement of fact. It is far, far, from being just a reliance on words and logic. It is rather a fusion of many modes of human communications, including language. Advertising as we know it today uses layout and illustration, both photography and art; it uses colour and music, even choreography and drama…so much more is going on than just a sales argument with the consumer.”