Psycholinguistic Guidelines For Advertising Copy

ABSTRACT - Clearly, for a message to be effective, it must be communicated. But what is it about a particular combination of words or phrases that tends to effect the likelihood that it will in fact be understood as the communicator desires? Evidence points to the semantic and grammatical structure of verbal communication as significant mediators of effective communication. This paper outlines some of the results of psycholinguistic research that bears directly upon advertising copy.


Larry Percy (1982) ,"Psycholinguistic Guidelines For Advertising Copy", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 107-111.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 107-111


Larry Percy, CREAMER INC


Clearly, for a message to be effective, it must be communicated. But what is it about a particular combination of words or phrases that tends to effect the likelihood that it will in fact be understood as the communicator desires? Evidence points to the semantic and grammatical structure of verbal communication as significant mediators of effective communication. This paper outlines some of the results of psycholinguistic research that bears directly upon advertising copy.


While, as Percy and Rossiter (1980) have pointed out, it is almost too obvious that if one is to write effective advertising copy, it is important to use words in a manner that they will be readily understood, it is by no means obvious what words will mean in particular grammatical contexts.

The complex relationship between the linguistic or grammatical structure of sentences and the psychological effects occurring when the information contained in that message is processed by a receiver has received a great deal of attention in the psycholinguistic literature. The important impact of linguistic variables upon advertising copy has been reviewed by Percy and Rossiter (1980); and Wyer (1974) has discussed in some detail the importance of grammatical context upon effective communication. There is much to be learned by applying the principles that seem to be emerging from this literature to advertising.

As McGuire (1972) has pointed out, when it comes to communicating with people through advertising, it is not simply necessary to lead a horse to water, one must often push his head under to get him to drink. It is difficult enough to merely expose one's advertising to the desired receiver and engage him in the process of decoding the message. Having gotten this far, why risk losing a successful encoding through a cumbersome grammatical construction, or a miscommunication based solely upon semantic or grammatical context of the message? Attention to findings of psycholinguistic research can help avoid ineffective communication.


The goal of any message is to be understood. Unfortunately, in advertising, as in other efforts at communication, it is possible to remember and interpret the meaning of a message, yet not understand the communicator's intent. Craik and Lockhart (1972) have suggested that the more meaningful or comprehensible something is, the better it will be remembered. With this in mind, we shall discuss the possible impact of a number of psychological variables upon a receiver's ability to accurately comprehend and remember an advertiser's message.

One of the difficulties in attempting to directly relate psycholinguistic principles to advertising effectiveness is the large number of potential interactions one must deal with; not only among conflicting psycholinguistic variables; but with executional variables as well. While a particular headline may include a difficult grammatical construction that suggests a likelihood of poor communication, the visual communication may be strong enough to override the total negative consequence. Nevertheless, it is useful to look at some examples of how certain advertisements violate general psycholinguistic understanding, and to observe whether such standard (albeit weak or questionable) measures as Starch recognition scores reflect these problems.

There are numerous principles discussed in the psycholinguistic literature that could significantly affect verbal communication (for a review see Percy and Rossiter, 1980). For purposes of this paper, however, we shall limit ourselves to eight of the more prominent principles.

High vs. Low Frequency Words

Advertising copywriters have an entire language from which to draw words in the creation of advertising; and often will be found to go beyond. However, within this enormous field there are many words that will be significantly better than others in facilitating message processing, and hence correct message comprehension. The frequency with which words are found in a language provides one barometer of success.

High frequency words have been described by Thorndike and Lorge (1944) as those words most commonly used as determined by their frequency of occurrence in magazines and newspapers. In tests of recognition, high frequency words were heard, read, and repeated faster and with fewer errors (Paivio, 1971). In tests of recall, a positive relationship was found between word frequency and recall in both short and long term memory tasks (Postman, 1970). Lowenthal (1969) found denotative (or explicit) meanings of high frequency words easier to decode. Also there is some evidence that word frequency is related to the connotative (or implied) meaning of words: for example, several researchers have found high frequency words to be less associated with negative feelings than low frequency words (Dixon and Dixon, 1964; Zajonc, 1968).

The obvious lesson these studies provide, is that copy-writers should avoid the use of obscure and difficult words. While this is true generally, there are times when an obscure or technical word may actually enhance recognition or comprehension. Far example, if brand name recognition is more important than recall, a unique name will tend to have the edge over the more familiar at the point of purchase. And as Lautman and Percy (1978) and Anderson and Jolson (1980) have shown, when addressing a better educated, technically oriented audience, technical Language tends to impress. Overall, however, more familiar words should be used.

As an example of how even a subtle difference in two ads might be effected by the usage frequency of the words employed in their headlines, consider the following from two generally comparable corporate ads:

1. "Each dawn is a victory in the life of a growing plant"

2. "14 tiny magnets help this father say 'Hi' to his son"

The usage frequency of the words used in the first example is somewhat greater (as measured by Thorndike and Lorge, 1944) than those in the second, and the corresponding Starch readership scores differ in favor of the first by a factor of almost twice: Noted, 52 vs. 24; Seen Associated 43 vs. 19; and Read Most, 19 vs. 1.

Concrete vs. Abstract Words

Concrete words are generally described as those which refer to objects, persons, places, or things that can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted. Abstract words refer to those things that cannot be experienced by our senses. Concrete wards are more effective than abstract words in communicating ideas. They are better remembered, tend to be more meaningful, and as a result better comprehended (Yuille and Paivio, 1969). A hypothesized reason is that concrete words tend to excite more visual imagery, and visualization enhances recall (Paivio, 1971; Rossiter and Percy, in press).

In an early attempt a. measuring the effects of concrete vs. abstract concepts in advertising Rossiter and Percy (1978) have found that more concrete VS. abstract formulation of attributes (see Table 1) for a hypothetical new imported beer generated almost twice the favorable attitude toward the new brand.



Paivio (1971), in addition to discussions of the effect of imagery and its relationship with memory comprehension, points out that both recognition and recall occur more accurately and faster for concrete words. Additionally, several studies have tended to show that concrete words are mare positively associated with comprehension (Begg and Paivio, 1969; Paivio, 1971; Sheehan. 1970).

One might safely conclude from this body of literature, that the use of concrete words and more specific construction in the writing of headlines is to be desired.

Imagery Value

In the words of Toglia and Battig (1978), imagery value is the extent to which a word arouses a sensory experience, such as a mental picture or sound, quickly and easily. The imagery value of words is highly correlated with a word's concreteness (Paivio, 1971); the two measures have about three-quarters of their variance in common. While it is therefore not impossible, strictly speaking, for more abstract words to evoke visual images, it is much less likely, unless learned specifically (Rossiter and Percy, in press). For example, words like "fantasy" or "dream," although abstract, will exhibit a high imagery value primarily because we have come to think about such words in that manner.

Research on the imagery value of larger verbal units such as phrases, clauses, sentences, etc., has been rare. However, the few studies that have been done strongly indicate that imagery value enhances communication. Jorgensen and Kintsch (1973), for example, have shown that high imagery sentences can be evaluated significantly faster as true or false than low imagery sentences; and Holyoak (1974) has found that sentences rated in imagerY value are significantly easier for receivers to understand than sentences rated low in image value. Williams (1979) found that high imagery syllogisms were faster and more accurately solved than the same syllogism made up of low imagery value words. This finding could have relevance for comparative advertising where claims are frequently written as syllogisms (e.g. "Here's proof we outperform the leading brand, which is better than most others; so which will you buy"?). Claims which easily arouse visual imagery of items and relationships should be more easily comprehended.

These studies would seem to suggest that, given a choice one would be better served by high imagery value words and sentences.

Semantic Components

Another area of interest to the creators of advertising copy is the effect of using Synonyms, Homonyms, and Antonyms. All of these word-sense relations are known as semantic components, and they help to account for the meaning among words within people's vocabulary.

Synonyms. While it is true that no two words actually have exactly the same meaning, synonyms are those words that are perceived to generally have the same meaning. Inexperienced writers often reach for synonyms to avoid repeating a word; however, there is substantial research that suggests this practice could severely effect comprehension. For example, it is not unusual for receivers to "substitute" synonyms in their memory (Anisfeld and Knapp, 1968; Grossman and Eagle, 1970; Kausler and Settle, 1973). This suggests that even when synonyms are specifically used in advertising to indicate a shade of meaning, the intent may be frustrated by misinterpretation.

Homonyms. Homonyms are words with more than one meaning. It is critical to be certain that the intended meaning of a word is the familiar one, and that the context of the sentence males the meaning very clear (Conrad, 1974; MacNamara, O'Cleirigh and Kellaghan, 1972). Fur example, the word "taste" has 32 meanings: 12 as a noun, 13 as a transitive verb, and 7 as an intransitive verb (according to Webster's Third). Yet used in the headline "Taste Sheraton" the context clearly defines the usage; one is unlikely to misunderstand this as actually eating a hotel. But consider the following tag line from a PPG advertisement: "PPG: a Concern for the Future." tat is the probable meaning: concern as a noun, referring to PPG as a business; or as a noun meaning interest or regard; or the most common use of concern as a noun, me ming an affair or matter. Perhaps any of these meanings would do, but why occupy a receiver's mind with something other than the business of your communication.

Perhaps the worst abuse of homonyms comes with attempts at puns, or play-on-words. Below are three examples of the genre (homonyms underlined):

1. "Lemon-aid for Menthol"

2. "An electrically controlled dye process helps put new green into Coronet's growth"

3. "We help slice the cost of bringing home the bread"

In the first example, the inclusion of a lemon flavor is meant to "aid" (i.e. help) the taste; in the second, the use of "green" as a noun rather than its more common use as an adjective is confusing and in the third, the noun "bread" (preceded as it is by the direct object "cost") is meant as a play-on-word for "money."

Because homonyms can create such confusion as to what is the intended meaning, it is best to avoid them, especially when the intended message is not the most common.

Antonyms. Research has shown that a negatively modified adjective is significantly more difficult to use and comprehend than an antonym with a different rook (Salter and Haycock, 1972). It is hypothesized that the reason for this is that negatively modified words require a two,step process for comprehension (i.e., a positive word followed by a negative tag), while an antonym with a different root requires only one. As a result, there is an opportunity for the receiver to either misunderstand the root word, or to simply refuse to make the effort necessary for processing the word. Consider the following headline: " uncommon ability to fully meet the engineering, fabrication and construction needs of the future." The negatively modified word "uncommon" requires the reader to first know the meaning of the word common, and then to negate. The use of an antonym such as "unique" would avoid this problem.


As a general rule, just as it was observed with negatively modified words in the discussion of antonyms, a negative sentence tends to be more difficult to process and understand than an affirmative sentence. Again, the recEiver is required to take an extra step: first, to determine what the sentence means in the affirmative, then to deny it.

Other types of negatives such as "not," "never," "Less than," etc. all have been shown to increase the time necessary to comprehend a sentence (Gough, 1965; Slobin, 1966) As a rule, therefore, it is generally desirable to avoid using negatives. However, there are times when the use of a negative can prove useful.

One of the problems with negative sentences is that they tend to focus attention on things you are expected to avoid or not believe. Yet occasionally this may be exactly what you want to do, as may be seen in the following headlines:

1. "Orange Juice is not just for breakfast anymore"

2. "There is nothing permanent except change"

3. "There are no simple solutions. Only intelligent choices."

Here the negative headlines serve the important task of underscoring in the receiver's mind a particular distinction for the advertiser's product, Wason (1965) and Green (1970) have both discussed this exception to the general guideline that negatives should be avoided.

Implied Quantifiers

An interesting communication problem is associated with the use of manifest vs. subjective verbs in simple unmodified sentences. This derives from a general finding that the transitive verbs tend to transfer quantitative meaning to the logical object (Abelson and Kanouse, 1966; Kanouse, 1972) by committing the proportion of the object class to which the verb applies. As a result, receivers are likely to supply the missing quantifier as detailed in Table 2.



In practice, what this means is that an advertisement with a headline that reads "Buy the Best" would be understood by the receiver to mean "Buy some or a few of the Best." The verb "buy" is a manifest verb that tends to lead to strong inductive generalizing (or inference), and as a result, implies a low quantifier such as "same" or "a few." On the other hand, a headline that reads "Avoid Costly Repairs" will be understood by receivers as meaning "Avoid most or all Costly Repairs." In this case the verb "avoid' is subjective, and as a result is less likely to stimulate generalized inference, leading to a stronger implied quantifier such as "all" or "most."

Without a good working knowledge of verb structure, these studies seem to suggest that when in doubt, make the quantifier explicit: e.g., "Buy Only The Best."

Active vs. Passive Sentences

A passive sentence differs from an active sentence in that the grammatical subject of the passive sentence is really the psychological object. Overall, passive constructions tend to take longer to process, and as a result, more prone to misunderstanding (Gough, 1966; Slobin, 1968). The subject, however, is far fm m clear. For example, Slobin (1971) has pointed cut that when the subject and object are not interchangeable, the likelihood of confusion is lower. While the sentence "The girl is being hit by the boy" could be confusing, "The leaves are being raked by the boy" would not. Rarely are subject and object totally interchangeable in advertising headlines, but consider the following Johns-Manville ad: "When our asbestos is used in the manufacture of gaskets, it becomes 'locked in."' Such a construction could well lead to processing problems. But when rewritten in the active voice, there is much less chance of confusion: e.g. "Asbestos is 'locked in' when manufacturers of gaskets use Johns-Manville."

In certain cases, some researchers have even suggested passive construction could be more effective than active specifically, when emphasizing the participation of the logical object in an event (Carroll, 1968; Klenbort and Anisfeld, 1974; Olson and Filby, 1972). For example, consider the following headline for Grunman solar hot water systems: "In less than a minute, they'll be in hot water." Even though this sentence still takes more time to process, its congruence with the order in which events usually take place (i.e. people proceed into water when taking a bath or shower) helps minimize the chance of misunderstanding (Percy and Rossiter, 1980).

Overall, however, unless well acquainted with the logic of one's message and the difficulties of passive constructions, advertising copywriters are well advised to avoid the passive.

Headline Length

Research on the effects of sentence length and complexity an recall and comprehension generally support the common sense notion that shorter sentences are easier to remember (Wearing, 1973). One reason for this is the fact that as sentences increase in length, they also tend to increase in complexity. The addition of words generally also adds phrases and clauses, which, in turn, make it more grammatically as well as psychologically complex (Wang, 1970). As sentence length increases, recall and comprehension become less of a linear function of the number of words than of the grammatical complexity. In fact, the most difficult type of sentence to recall or comprehend is one described by grammarians as "self-embedded" (Foder and Garrett, 1967; Forester and Ryder, 1971; Wang, 1970). A "Self-embedded" sentence is one containing both an independent and dependent clause.

In a recent study of 78 one page corporate advertisements, Percy (1981) compared the number of words per headline with Starch "Read Most" scores to see if there was a relationship between headline length and the likelihood of a receiver actually going on and reading the ad. The results closely paralleled Wearing's (1973) results for sentence length (see Figures 1 and 2). Wearing found that the total number of words correctly recalled from sentences rose slightly from sentences of 5 words to sentences of 7, then dropped significantly for sentences of 9 words, after which sentence length remained rather stable. Percy found "Read Most" scores for headlines of fewer than five words to be 9.0, increasing to 9.86 for headlines between five and eight words, then a significant drop to 7.95 for head-lines of nine to eleven words, with similar Scores for headlines of greater length.





These results suggest that headlines should he kept to about 5 to 8 words. But the reader is cautioned against the notion that "smaller is always better"; it is always necessary to sufficiently make one's point, a job rarely accomplished by a word or two.


Although it is certainly true that the semantic and grammatical structure of advertising are not the only variables affecting message processing and ultimate communication success, it is clear from research in psycholinguistics that they do play an important part. Decocted from this growing body of literature, there are numerous guidelines for writers of advertising; and as reviewed in this paper, eight seem particularly relevant.

1. High frequency words, those more commonly used in everyday language, are to be preferred over low frequency words.

2. The use of concrete words and concepts are more likely than abstract words to stimulate better recall and comprehension of product claims.

3. And in a similar vain, high imagery value constructions tend to lead to easier and more accurately understood communication.

4. The use of synonyms and homonyms should be avoided, unless in a well understood context.

5. Avoid negative constructions, unless special emphasis is desired; and use antonyms whenever possible, rather than negatively modified words.

6. Make quantifiers explicit.

7. Avoid the use of passive sentence constructions.

8. Limit headline length to about 5 to 8 words.

While not a guarantee to effective advertising, these guidelines should help improve advertising communication.


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Larry Percy, CREAMER INC


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09 | 1982

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