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Advertising and the fine art of making an impression

by Nigel Hollis | March 26, 2012

The reference to an “advertising message” makes me wince. The word “message” seems to imply that the advertising is designed to convey specific information or an argument. But not all advertising is intended to persuade people by arguing the merits of a brand. And even when it does, I think we overestimate the degree to which people actually comprehend what is shown and said in advertising.

Particularly for dynamic media like TV, online video, radio and cinema, people rarely assess the relevance of an ad at the time of viewing.

There are three reasons for this.

First, there is no pause for thought. If people have decided to watch the ads, then new content is constantly displacing attention on the old.

Second, most people are not in the shopping window, i.e. the subject matter is not immediately relevant to them.

And, third, even for those in the shopping window, the information is understood as a claim, it is not yet a belief confirmed by experience.

But this does not mean that most advertising is ineffective. Provided the ideas conveyed by the ad come to mind when relevant, then it will have an effect, i.e. when someone is thinking about buying the product in that category. So in the vast majority of cases, the best we can hope of any advertising is that the content is noticed at the time of viewing and the idea and feelings evoked are linked to the brand in people’s memories.

This is why I have always preferred the old-fashioned term, “advertising impression.” Although it is typically used as a media term to imply an exposure or ad view, the word “impression” also implies that people get the general idea. They understand the gist of what is being said, without necessarily consciously considering what the ad is trying to convey at the time of viewing. An impression is the mental image of a brand that sticks in people’s minds.

After all, isn’t that what most advertising is trying to do? Advertising helps the brand to make a good impression. The analogy might be chatting with someone you find attractive. You might try to make yourself seem interesting to the other person. You try to make a good impression by saying the right things and casting yourself in a good light. You may choose to emphasize certain things about yourself more than others, in order to make yourself stand out from the crowd. And you will try to make yourself seem likeable.

It seems to me that if these tactics work for a person, then they ought to work for a brand as well. So what do you think? Would “impression” be a better word than “message?” Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Dan, April 03, 2012
    Spot on, Nigel. Like Paul Feldwick wrote in some old article: advertising has always been about "suggestion and seduction" rather than about messages and persuasion. Thanks.
  2. Nigel, March 29, 2012
    Thanks for the comments guys, much appreciated. I think it means I am going to stick with "impression." Cheers, Nigel
  3. Gaurav, March 28, 2012
    Interesting perspectives Nigel and Stefan. I guess brand 'image' is the result of the 'impression' left by the advertisement. 

    In addition to the points you mention above, I like 'impression' over 'message' also because unlike 'message', 'impression' is not neutral - it can be positive or negative.  It leaves allowance for feedback from the ad's viewers rather than one-way 'message' delivery.

    For example, Groupon's controversial Superbowl ad last year probably left a sour impression in most people's mind even though it clearly delivered its intended message (that Groupon can help you to save money).
  4. Stefan, March 26, 2012
    The best word to grab the purpose here would be  'Image' I feel.

    An advertising commercial wants to impress the consumer, portray a desireable solution for an identified consumer need, show relevance, be memorized and positively engaging the target group!
  5. Jim, March 26, 2012
    Well said: "impression" is definitely superior to "message" in that it is accurate to what advertising actually does: provides information about an unknown brand that provides a context in which any future encounter will be considered (for new customers) or evokes memories of the brand to ensure that it is not forgotten (for existing customers) ... and only rarely reaches the right person, at the right time, with the right information to elicit a buy.

    The notion that advertising communicates a significant amount of information that gives the prospect a clear indication of the brand seems too much to expect of a method of communication that holds partial attention for less than a minute.

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