Hard-Sell "Killers" and Soft-Sell "Poets": Modern Advertising's Enduring Message Strategy Debate

By Beard, Fred K. | Journalism History, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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Hard-Sell "Killers" and Soft-Sell "Poets": Modern Advertising's Enduring Message Strategy Debate


Beard, Fred K., Journalism History


This historical study of the U.S. advertising trade literature represents the first attempt to interpret the enduring debate between advocates of hard- and soft-sell advertising. Primary sources consisted of works published mainly in the historically important trade journal Printers' Ink, supplemented with contemporary professional thought identified in advertising and marketing trade journals. The findings of the study are consistent with what many might recognize as the "received view" of modern advertising. However, they also help establish how and why the terms of this debate remained relatively stable over the course of the previous century, despite the fact that definitions of advertising effectiveness and appropriate strategy continually grew more complex and sophisticated.

Ninety-three years ago, leading U.S. automotive advertisers met head on in the industry's foremost trade journal, Printers'Ink, to debate the merits of "reason-why" versus "atmospheric" or "impressionistic" advertising.' Contemporary advertisers, dubbed "hard-sell killers" and "soft-sell poets,"2 debated roughly the same topic in a 1997 issue of Advertising Age. The 1990s version pitted advocates of rational-oriented "advertising that sells" against those favoring emotional-oriented advertising that entertains and creates bonds with consumers.

Scholars have developed and applied many theories and constructs in their study of modern advertising. Recent studies confirm the importance of various hierarchical models of effects, information content, involvement, cognitive processing, affective cues and responses, and attitude toward the advertisement.3 These efforts to match the characteristics of effective advertising with various situational factors, however, have had little impact on the message strategy debate or advertising practice.4 Furthermore, there is little evidence that industry research has had much influence either. A search of the trade literature published between 1970 and 2002 revealed only five instances of industry research linked to discussions of message strategy.5

Instead, as historian Stephen Fox suggested, hard- and soft-sell advertising seemed to cycle back-and-forth throughout the twentieth century "according to the industry's own rhythms,... its perception of the public's boredom level," and "in apparent independence of the external historical context."6 Despite the significance and longevity of the professional dispute-and the recognized influence of major contemporary figures such as Leo Burnett, John Caples, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves, and Bill Bernbach-little scholarship exists describing the substantive nature of the debate from the perspective of either the archetypical or rank-and-file advertising practitioner.

The study of the advertising trade literature presented here uses the method of traditional historical analysis7 to address this gap, examining several influences on the hard- and soft-sell debate. One is the extent to which advertisers' definitions remained consistent. Present-day textbooks suggest the hard sell and its informational product orientation consists of logical appeals, an emphasis on tangible product features, and advertising that encourages a direct response.8 The soft sell and its transformational consumer orientation is typically associated with emotional appeals, an emphasis on psychological benefits, and advertising that causes sales indirectly via entertainment, brand image, or brand liking.

Another potentially important influence relates to changing professional perspectives regarding the role and characteristics of effective advertising. Richard Pollay, who identified phases of hard sell and soft sell in his study of magazine advertising between 1900 and 1980, noted the possibility that "many of the apparent differences between the advertisements of various eras are simply different means of trying to accomplish the same ends."9

This analysis also examines the criticisms and arguments advertisers have used to attack their opponents and defend their own positions.

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