Scott Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By placing advertising on a scientific basis, Walter Dill Scott taught American businesspeople how to manipulate consumers’ tastes and buying habits.

Summary of Event

Walter Dill Scott received his Ph.D. in 1900 at the University of Leipzig, where he studied under the famous Wilhelm Wundt, who was attempting to make an exact science of psychology. Scott was fascinated with the potential of this budding science and devoted his life to studying its principles. He was associate professor of psychology and education at the prestigious Northwestern University from 1901 to 1908, professor of psychology at Northwestern from 1908 to 1920, and president of that university from 1921 until he retired in 1939. Theory of Advertising, The (Scott, W. D.) Advertising;theory Psychology;advertising [kw]Scott Publishes The Theory of Advertising (1903) [kw]Publishes The Theory of Advertising, Scott (1903) [kw]Theory of Advertising, Scott Publishes The (1903) Theory of Advertising, The (Scott, W. D.) Advertising;theory Psychology;advertising [g]United States;1903: Scott Publishes The Theory of Advertising[00610] [c]Marketing and advertising;1903: Scott Publishes The Theory of Advertising[00610] [c]Publishing and journalism;1903: Scott Publishes The Theory of Advertising[00610] Scott, Walter Dill Wundt, Wilhelm

Scott published many books on the application of scientific psychological principles to business practice. He was imbued with the spirit of progress that characterized the early part of the twentieth century and sincerely believed that the free enterprise system would provide nothing but good things for the American people. Several of his books dealt with the subject of advertising, and all were popular with businesspeople because he offered advice that was badly needed and unavailable from other sources.

Advertising was in its infancy in the early part of the twentieth century. Many businesspeople understood its awesome potential, but no one understood how to make it work effectively and predictably. It was not enough merely to attract attention to a product; businesspeople wanted to know how to make potential consumers remember their products and desire them to the extent that they would purchase them instead of competitors’ products, perhaps even paying a premium for the privilege. In Scott’s first book on advertising, The Theory of Advertising: A Simple Exposition of the Principles of Psychology in Their Relation to Successful Advertising (1903), he offered six fundamental rules for attracting attention. He went on to discuss in simple language how to make a product remembered, how to make it desirable, and how to motivate buyers to act.

One reason for the success of Scott’s books on advertising was that they were copiously illustrated with advertisements taken from popular newspapers and magazines. Television did not yet exist, and radio advertising was insignificant until the 1920’s; print was thus the primary medium for advertising. Furthermore, advertising of the early twentieth century was mainly illustrated with line drawings or black-and-white sketches, because printing in colors and reproduction of photographs were both in primitive stages of development. Essentially, magazines published “institutional ads,” or ads designed to create appealing images of companies, and newspapers published “retail ads,” or ads designed to motivate people to make immediate purchases. The illustrations in Scott’s books show the dominant forms of advertising of the period.

Scott’s first book on advertising had a powerful impact on American businesspeople for other reasons as well. Scott had a distinguished reputation as an innovator in both education and psychology. His book was well written, easy for laypersons to understand, and illustrated with actual advertisements that were often amusing as well as thought-provoking. Scott not only explained his theories in clear terms but also proved them, or at least illustrated their applicability, with numerous examples. Being an expert in the field of applied psychology, he knew how to apply his own psychological principles to influence his readers. Furthermore, he made it obvious that advertising as it existed in 1903 was very much a hit-and-miss operation. No one in the business world knew how to obtain results with advertising on a consistent basis.

Readers could clearly see that Scott knew what he was talking about. If an ad he reprinted in his book was effective, he explained why it was effective; if an ad was ineffective or actually repellent, he explained exactly why this was the case based on the psychological principles he expounded.

The ads reproduced in Scott’s books may seem quaint and innocuous to modern readers in comparison with dynamic television advertising campaigns that sometimes cost millions of dollars. The principles of psychological manipulation laid down by Scott and illustrated in these advertisements, however, can be seen at work even in the most recent products of twenty-first century advertising agencies. It is easy for modern readers of Scott’s books to understand why particular ads would have been effective and why others would have been a waste of the advertisers’ money.

Scott discussed the importance of using direct commands in ads, such as “Buy it now!” In his explications of certain ads, he showed how the use of a picture of an authority figure, such as a doctor, can enhance the effectiveness of direct commands. He discussed the art of using coupons and questionnaires in ads to help readers remember products through interaction with the products’ makers. He also pointed out the importance of repetition, one of the most annoying but also most effective aspects of modern advertising on television.

In later books on advertising, Scott went even deeper into applied psychology. Probably his most portentous observations had to do with the notion of appealing to basic human instincts such as self-preservation, hunting, parenting, and gaining social status. It is now common practice for marketers to appeal to human instincts to sell almost any kind of product or service. For example, an ad that shows a group of happy and obviously affluent people drinking a certain brand of wine at a dinner party will probably appeal to the viewer’s desire to belong and to be important. Ads showing people buying their children expensive clothing or driving them to school in luxury cars appeal to the viewer’s parental instinct.

Walter Dill Scott.

(Library of Congress)

Because advertising was still in its infancy at the time he was writing, the idealistic and well-meaning Scott did not foresee the potential for abuses in advertising that have been amply described by scholars, popular writers, and politicians since that period. In this respect, Scott was a bit like Baron von Frankenstein—he created a monster he could not control.


Many of Scott’s ideas on the use of applied psychology in advertising seem elementary and obvious to modern readers, who are bombarded by sophisticated television commercials and many other forms of advertising. In Scott’s time, however, the principles he expounded came as a revelation to many businesspeople, who knew that advertising was the secret of success but did not understand exactly how to use it.

Within a short time after The Theory of Advertising was published, many companies began employing advertising experts rather than leaving ad creation up to their merchandising departments. Others found it expedient to employ the services of independent agencies that specialized in every aspect of advertising, including layout, illustration, copywriting, market testing, and deciding in which publications to place ads in order to reach specially targeted consumers. These agencies prospered because they could offer their services free of charge to their clients; they customarily received payment from the media—the newspapers and magazines, and later radio and television stations—in the form of a percentage of the fees charged to the clients.

Advertising began to reshape Americans’ consciousness. People were conditioned to want more and better things. Automobile advertising is an interesting example. Manufacturers stopped bragging about the durability of cars and began appealing to such instincts as the desire for prestige and the desire to appeal to members of the opposite sex. Advertising helped produce the phenomenon of planned obsolescence Planned obsolescence by magnifying minor stylistic changes in automobile design in order to make older models seem undesirable.

At first, advertising was largely confined to newspapers, magazines, and billboards. With the advent of radio and especially with television, advertising became a powerful force in manipulating not only American buying habits but also American voting habits. Political candidates found that they had to hire advertising experts to shape their public images and present them to the public in an appealing light.

Advertising enabled some companies to grow so much that they were able to drive smaller competitors out of business. Many businesspeople learned that they could use advertising to raise profits by increasing demand without improving quality. It may truthfully be said that advertising, using psychological principles first enunciated by Scott, revolutionized American business. Beer provides some good examples of the power of advertising because it is such a heavily advertised product. At one time, thousands of small local breweries operated in the United States; with mass advertising, the market came to be dominated by only a few well-known brands. Large companies can afford expensive advertising campaigns to keep their names in the public’s mind.

The world of franchising offers another good example of the power of advertising. It was mainly through advertising that the American landscape came to be covered with franchises of national firms, McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets prominent among them. Although these enterprises are independently owned, the owners have found it profitable to operate under a common name precisely because that common name can be made known to the public. Travelers in unfamiliar surroundings know what they will get at a McDonald’s restaurant; they do not have to risk trying a local establishment.

Scott was essentially a scholar and idealist. He did not foresee the harmful ways in which his psychological theories could be used by entrepreneurs who are more interested in profit than in science. It was not long after The Theory of Advertising was published that outcries were heard against abuses of advertising. Over the years, critics of advertising have made many charges. They have claimed that advertising encourages materialism, greed, and selfishness; that it contributes to environmental decay by encouraging consumption and waste; that it promotes alcohol and tobacco consumption and thus contributes to the deaths of half a million Americans annually; that it perpetuates class differences by tempting low-income people to waste their money on lotteries, liquor, and other products; and that it encourages class hatred by creating dissatisfaction, envy, and insecurity. Advertisers defend themselves by noting that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees their freedom of speech.

The sheer power of advertising to shape people’s minds, however, did bring about a counterreaction that gradually forced some measures of government regulation and self-regulation by the industry. In 1912, the Associated Advertising Clubs of America adopted the “Truth in Advertising Code” Truth in advertising in an attempt to protect members from more stringent regulation by the government. In 1938, the Wheeler-Lea Act Wheeler-Lea Act (1938)[Wheeler Lea Act] gave the Federal Trade Commission jurisdiction over false or misleading advertising. In 1971, the National Advertising Review Council National Advertising Review Council was established; this independent self-regulatory body for the advertising industry was formed through an alliance of the Council of Better Business Bureaus with the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and the American Advertising Federation.

In 1970, after considerable debate, cigarette ads were banned from U.S. radio and television. In 1976, the Federal Trade Commission issued a set of rules on the preparation of advertising directed at children. At the end of the twentieth century, some commentators began to raise questions about the ethics of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. Advertising on the Internet was a topic of discussion as well, one that is ongoing in the twenty-first century; although American advertisers are legally and ethically required to meet the same standards as those for other media when creating Internet ads, the nature of the Internet makes enforcement of those standards very difficult.

The heated debate over advertising continues. Defenders of the rights of advertisers contend that government censorship limits the free circulation of ideas and could lead to consumers’ being misinformed or unaware of beneficial opportunities. Further, they claim that advertising stimulates the economy, creates jobs, encourages the creation of new goods and services, keeps the public informed of important developments in commerce and politics, and promotes wholesome competition for the consumer’s dollar. Those who blame advertising for a multitude of modern problems—including crime, pollution, and trade deficits—call for censorship and regulation. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm went so far as to suggest that advertising could be responsible for insanity, because its overall effect is to create a false conception of reality, which leads to frustration and disorientation.

The debate over advertising will not be settled by any easy solutions or compromises. Both the U.S. economy and the world economy are so heavily dependent on advertising that massive regulation of the advertising industry could easily plunge the entire industrialized world into economic depression. Still, governments, including that of the United States, have forced cigarette makers to include messages in their advertising about the adverse health effects of smoking, and, after court judgments against cigarette companies, many have been obliged not only to pay billions in settlements but also to advertise explicit information on the dangers of smoking. Many industries, sensing a need to be more socially conscious, have voluntarily allied themselves with popular causes in their advertising. Oil companies, for example, have noted in their advertising how their drilling is compatible with caring for the environment. Theory of Advertising, The (Scott, W. D.) Advertising;theory Psychology;advertising

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goulart, Ron. The Assault on Childhood. London: Gollancz, 1970. Discusses the many ways in which children are being psychologically manipulated to equate consumerism with success and happiness, along with being conditioned to crave useless products such as Pet Rocks and even harmful products such as cigarettes. Calls for greater public awareness of the growing problem and stronger government control.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobson, Jacob Z. Scott of Northwestern: The Life Story of a Pioneer in Psychology and Education. Chicago: L. Mariano, 1951. This first full-length biography of Walter Dill Scott has been criticized for being too laudatory of the subject’s contributions to the science of psychology. Based on notes compiled by Scott himself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, William. Essays in Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Collection of writings on psychology by an author whose theories strongly influenced Scott. Shows the scope of psychological knowledge in the early twentieth century, its direction of inquiry, and James’s ideas about the practical application of psychological principles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ogilvy, David. Confessions of an Advertising Man. Reprint. London: Southbank, 2004. The founder of one of the world’s largest advertising agencies discusses the psychological aspects of advertising and concludes with a chapter titled “Should Advertising Be Abolished?” in which he asserts that it should be reformed but not abolished. A witty, entertaining, and informative book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Walter Dill. The Psychology of Advertising. New ed. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1913. An enlarged version of Scott’s 1903 work, with additions and modifications. Contains many illustrations of magazine ads of the period, along with Scott’s analyses of their effectiveness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sivulka, Juliann. Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of American Advertising. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1997. Examines how advertising both mirrors and creates American society. Discusses the growth of advertising, the introduction of products and brands, and how ads reflect and influence cultural trends. Illustrated with more than 150 advertisements.

Fuller Brush Company Is Incorporated

Advertisers Adopt a Truth-in-Advertising Code

Procter & Gamble Announces Plans to Sell Directly to Retailers

A. C. Nielsen Company Pioneers in Marketing and Media Research

Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize Book Sales

Wheeler-Lea Act Broadens FTC Control over Advertising

Categories: History