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Advertising and Human Memory






Kelvin R.P. Advertising and human memory. – London : Business Publications Limited, 1962. – 55 p.









Foreword by J. W. Hobson











This book, brief though it is, carries great importance for everyone connected with advertising. Dr Kelvin has set out in simple terms the principles on which the human memory may be expected to operate in relation to advertising; and the human memory is an integral factor in the processes of this business. Machines that make goods or transport goods owe very little to the working of the human memory, but the consumer demand without which those machines would be idle is substantially dependent on it. There is no other branch of industry –certainly no other branch in which such large amounts of money are involved–in which memory plays so vital a part.

Virtually all consumer goods buying decisions at the moment of purchase are grounded on a combination of memories: memory of previous satisfaction or dissatisfaction, memory of advertising claims and associations, memory of the recommendation of friends, and so on. Consumer purchases are not like the purchase of tons of wheat on the Liverpool Wheat Market, where there is a simple interplay of price, supply, delivery and two or three clearly defined standards of quality. Consumer buying decisions are compounded of a large number of subjective associations as well as of objective values, and the subjective associations become for the purchaser an integral part of the product she buys. It is human memory which determines these associations and it is therefore an intrinsic element in the purchase.

This memory plays a major part in the whole scheme of marketing. In addition, the contents and presentation of advertising have to be carefully related to the processes of memory Many advertising experts have recognized that it is not the visual or aural effect of advertising which creates its real impact; that it is the mind rather than the eye which picks out from a crowded newspaper page the headlines, or from a busy street the posters which will be remembered; that it is the intrinsic interest of the message rather than its physical form which creates "impact"; Many years ago, just after the war, when goods were in short supply, I carried out a simple experiment on the front page of the Daily Express, This page carried a banner headline across the top relating to some political row between two ministers; and somewhere towards the bottom of the sixth column was a one-inch paragraph headed "more nylons soon". Among the girls in our office virtually everyone (who had seen the paper) had seen the nylon paragraph, but few remembered noticing the banner headline. Dr Kelvin explains how the memory selects the things that will be remembered, and subconsciously rejects those things which do not seem to be of interest. There are still many advertising people who act as though the impact of advertising depends on the techniques of physical impact rather than the interest of the message, and these people would do well to read what Dr Kelvin has to say.


Again, in media planning the experts will take endless pains to calculate the coverage and cost, or to assess the physical characteristics of the alternative media. But Dr Kelvin's book will show that one of the most important aspects of media selection must be the careful balance of the media which create memories with the media which revive memories, and v/ thus it highlights the importance of skilful combination of media, of getting the best frequency of repetition and of judging the right relationship between impact and reminder.

It is also sobering to remember that the very research techniques by which we assess readership or viewership or poster audience, by which we attempt to define a pattern of buying

and the reasons for it, by which we measure attention value of advertisements and their power to communicate, are all techniques of recall in which the memory plays a vital part.

Yet how many of us have ever studied the processes of human memory? We may have established in our minds some vague impression of these processes, based on observation or experience, corroborated by inexpert discussions in which one amateur trades his ideas with another amateur. Or we may have tried to read the textbooks on the subject which cover so wide a ground and go into such detail that the application of their material to our special needs in advertising is very difficult. But I do not remember seeing before a brief, simple application of the scientific knowledge on the subject to the problems of advertising. I would invite Dr Kelvin to consider, some day, writing a full-scale book on this same subject, but for the present we must be grateful for his short readable statement of underlying principles.

This book therefore makes a very valuable and much-needed contribution to advertising practice; it should be compulsory reading for everyone in the business.

I must not end this brief preface without paying tribute to Mills and Rockleys Ltd, who commissioned this treatise and are making it available to us. This company has for some years adopted the enlightened and imaginative policy of offering the advertising business important contributions to the basic understanding of advertising processes. We may be grateful that they have rejected the wasteful and superficial expedient of merely repeating in new promotion phrases and presentations the accepted fact that posters have a vital part to play in advertising; this needs no proof beyond the fact that the poster industry has thriven for over a century. What I find admirable about the Mills and Rockleys' policy is that, instead, they have had the imagination to research into the underlying principles, and to rest their case on our capacity to interpret them into day-to-day decisions.




ADVERTISING ACHIEVES results largely because of its effects on memory processes. Yet from a psychological standpoint the advertising man's approach to memory is often very naive and old-fashioned. On the one hand the advertising world has periodic, short-lived enthusiasms for the "latest", often unsubstantiated, discovery; on the other it generally acts as if its fundamental ideas about memory had come down to it, unmodified, from Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. This is not entirely the advertising man's fault. He is occasionally given "useful hints" about the psychology of memory, told of certain tricks. There appears to be little by way of a general survey of psychological knowledge which is available to him–outside the long and often highly technical psychology textbooks; and these contain a great deal which is scarcely relevant to the advertising man.

The object of this book is to present, as simply and clearly as possible, such a survey of the psychology of memory. It is not a textbook or even a précis of a textbook; its aim is to set out the basic problems and issues connected with memory processes, some of the more important information available to psychologists about these, and to link this with matters that are, or should be, of concern to advertising. But the emphasis throughout will be on the psychology of memory, with advertising as a secondary consideration.

The importance of memory to advertising stems from a very simple fact. Time elapses between exposure to an advertisement and the purchasing situation in which, it is hoped, the advertisement will show its effect. Therefore the "message" has somehow to be remembered, to be stored, during this time interval. Even though the display in the shop may be very important, it is generally reason– able to assume that its effect depends on, or is at least enhanced by, interaction with memories of past experience and promotion of the product. The famous "image" which has to be captured by display and packaging is no more than the complex of memories associated with the product; but more of this later.

The essence of memory is that it spans the time between the past and the present. In its simplest form this raises three issues:

(a) what is stored ?

(b) how is it stored?

(c) how does the stored material affect behaviour?

The rest of this book will deal with these three broad issues in turn. Since the purpose is to present general principles the book refers to evidence without examining it in its technical details. For the reader who is interested in the details I have added a brief bibliography of the more easily available sources at the end.



Obviously, only that can be stored which has first been experienced. We can only remember what we have perceived, even if we were unaware that /we were perceiving it at the time. Herein lies the first complication. Our nervous system responds to more stimuli in the environment than we attend to, or are conscious of. But it also selects what we respond to, whether consciously or unconsciously. Thus at one and the same time our nervous System reacts to more than we attend to and to less than it might: it achieves, in fact, a compromise between the limited range of experience of which we are aware and the wealth of stimuli which is available. The fate of advertisements is itself a good example of this process of selection and compromise: advertisements are everywhere, in newspapers, on hoardings, on television. Spread over the whole population they more or less achieve the results at which the advertiser aims, depending on the quality of the work. But for any one individual, at any given moment, their effect is marginal; in any meaningful sense of the words he "attends" to few and "registers" the message of even less.


Ignoring the relatively rare occasions on which one hunts through advertisements for a specific, purpose, advertising normally forms part of the multitude of stimuli to which we pay no attention. It is peripheral to our interests, its effects are due Jo chance encounter rather than, deliberate search. Yet the impact of an. advertisement is not wholly a matter of chance. Though logically all the items which make up our environment may have the same chance of evoking a response, psychologically some have a much better chance than others. This is because our perceptual processes are selective and favour the perception of some stimuli more than others. Indeed, the selective processes may sometimes positively inhibit us from responding to certain stimuli. We come, for example, to ignore the background noises in our offices or factories which at first seemed deafening and distracting.

The psychology of perception demands examination in its own right. Here it is only possible to discuss very briefly two major factors which appear to determine what we respond to, even when we do not deliberately seek it out or pay attention to it.

The first of these two factors is largely perceptual in the strict sense; that is, it usually depends on the physical characteristics of the stimulus. We respond to a stimulus which obtrudes itself by standing out from an otherwise homogeneous background…"


The full text of the book can be found at bookstores, e-bookstores and libraries.


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See also:

Communications of an Advertising Man

Radio Advertising

Profitable Newspaper Advertising

Books on Advertising

Books on PR

Books on Mass Media