Frank Strong

The Shoulders of Giants: Three Essential Communications Theories

By: Frank Strong | August 15, 2013 | 

Communications Theories

By Frank Strong

Arguably scientist and inventor, Isaac Newton was downplaying his brilliance when he allegedly said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants.”

I suspect however, the person who literally defined gravity, was speaking in far more clinical terms: He was crediting theory.

In the profession of PR, indeed in the larger realm of marketing, practical experience is often valued far more than theoretical knowledge.

Anyone who has ever applied to work for an agency is often met with “Do you have agency experience?” as the very first question following an exchange of pleasantries.

Clearly experience isn’t without merit, and this post isn’t an effort by any means to discredit experience. Rather the point is that we really need both: Experience and theory.

Experience will certainly help us execute, while theory will help us execute further and faster, without fumbling through the same challenges that have already been solved.

Here are three essential communications theories, written decades earlier, that still stand up after all this time:

1.  Eight hidden emotional needs.  In 1957 Vance Packard wrote “The Hidden Persuaders,” which can still be purchased on Amazon today. Packard said there are eight subconscious emotional needs, which marketers can leverage to add psychological value to their products. He identified these emotional needs as the following:

  1. Emotional security: The suggestion the product improves safety or in some way reduces a threat.
  2. Reassurance of worth: The purchase of a product will improve one’s own value.
  3. Ego gratification: The promise that one will look or feel great post-transaction.
  4. Creative outlets: The ability to somehow customize a product to make it “theirs.”
  5. Selling love objects: This isn’t what you are thinking! Instead, think about how marketers might capture the moment of pride and love a parent might have for a child with an outstanding report card, or the game winning goal.
  6. Sense of power: What, in 1957, Packard associated with masculinity. Today, it is equally applicable for women.  Have you heard? Power suits are making a comeback.
  7. Sense of roots: Which Packard squarely places in the realm of “family centered.”
  8. Immortality: A product marketing message that fosters a feeling of heroism, often post-mortem (i.e. insurance).

Think through any of the marketing messages you’ve seen today; I’d welcome anyone to point out an effective modern marketing message that – beyond a shadow of a doubt – does not incorporate one of these eight emotional needs.

Please leave it in the comments!

2.  Intensify and downplay. In the introduction to this post, I’m suggesting Newton invoked what in 1976, communications theorist Hugh Rank would identify later as the intensify/downplay schema. Rank argued that persuasive communications fall into either one of these two categories, which could further be broken down into subcategories:

  1. Intensify: This is a persuasive argument accentuating positive attributes. This can be achieved through repetition, association with another notion, or through composition. In describing composition, Rank used the examples of U$A and Nixxon – the later a derogatory reference to the former President, who was caught in a scandal.
  2. Downplay: A persuasive argument can downplay negative attributes of an idea through omission, diversion or confusion. One can look to the communication of politics at almost any point in history to see examples of omitting facts, changing the subject, or generally engaging in what this blog says sucks.

3. Selectivity in media. Selectivity is a significant challenge in any PR effort – it’s often the battle to win over pre-conceived notions. Louis Forsdale wrote in 1981 that no human is capable of complete objectivity. All people will have bias based on culture, age, education, and social interactions, among other factors. These can be conscious or unconscious, and Forsdale said they are evident in three distinct processes:  Selective attention, selective perceptions, and selective memory.

  1. Selective attention: Paying attention only to the things that have value for use as individuals, and likens it to window shopping. We cannot possibly pay attention to every item in every window. In many ways it is a natural reflex to avoid information overload.
  2. Selective perception: Applying our own unique meaning to an idea in order to ensure if fits in our socialized or environmental framework. It is literally a vantage point from the perspective of our nurturing (as opposed to nature).
  3. Selective memory: This is perhaps the most recognizable of the three processes Forsdale identified. As a culture, we often joke about selective memory, but it has a basic physiological root: To remember what is helpful, and forget what is harmful. Hard science is rapidly catching up to this theory – scientists are now able to embed false memories into miceTotal Recall anyone?

Even in academic circles, communications theory is notoriously weak. Still, I’m amazed by two aspects of these theories since I first studied them more than a decade ago: 1) How well they stand up over time and 2) How hard science is rapidly catching up to enhance our knowledge of communications theories.

As for Isaac Newton, whether he was speaking humbly or clinically, we still experience the often harsh reality of gravity – be that in the form of age or a fall – without truly understanding why.

(Sources: Packard V. (1957). “Marketing eight hidden needs,” in The Hidden Persuaders, NY: Pocket Books. Rank, H. (1976). “Teaching about public persuasion,” in D. Dieterich (ed.), Teaching about doublespeak. Urban, Ill.:  National Council of Teachers of English. Forsdale, L (1981) “The selective processes,” in Perspectives on Communications. Reading, Mass.:  Addison-Wesley. )

About Frank Strong

Frank Strong is a classically trained PR professional with content marketing savvy. Find him on Twitter, Google+ or read more from him on his blog, Sword and the Script.

  • DennisMiller1

    Hey guys really great post

  • rdopping

    Frank, brilliant post,sir. I am reticent to say I have very little knowledge about these theories, however, I am so glad to have the basis here for some continued research. As an interior designer these methodologies can certainly come in very handy when communicating design ideas to my clients.
    Honesty is something. I take

    • rdopping

      What? Honesty is something I take very seriously. Do any of these theories, in their design, mean to be directly misleading? Facetious, yes. These days I would love to believe that a communicators fiduciary responsibility is to share information based in honesty and reality. Caveat and all that.

      • rdopping Thank you Sir.  I think. 🙂  I do not believe honesty and persuasiveness are incongruent!

  • “Rather the point is that we really need both: Experience and theory.”
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    As a communications professional who has a swack (yes, that’s totally a technical term) of academic background, I’m constantly trying to explain how much of what I do is grounded in theory. And how learning about things other than PR can make you a better PR professional. (
    Most of the time, it falls on deaf ears. I love seeing others championing the value of theory 🙂

    • Kato42 Swack,[suh-whak] adj. 1. a lot; 2. mucho. 3. saucy.   Thanks Kate.  And I too remember the good old days of using a dark room to develop photographs.  I wasn’t much good at it, but I sure got dirty doing it!

  • Wow Frank that’s for this! I’ve got my weekend reading set out for me now.

    • RebeccaTodd Sweet Rebecca, enjoy.  Hugh Rank is one of my favorites.  He nailed it and I see it every day.

  • Yes, a thousand times yes!  Thanks for this bit of joyous exhilaration to start the day!
    One of my favorite classes in this second iteration of my academic career was “Introduction to Rhetorical Criticism.” The top two things I learned in that class, among many — one, that almost anything humans create can be analyzed as an act of communication — a parade, a building, a speech, or an ad. Two, Fisher’s narrative paradigm — the theory that humans relate to the world through narrative, and as above, almost any successful act of communication has the elements of narrative running through it.
    Regarding “experience versus theory,” the two theories I learned in my class are absolutely relevant to professional communicators, right?  We march about, endlessly creating rhetorical artifacts and telling stories. Most do it intuitively. But if we are armed with the knowledge of how communication works, and what the required components of communication are, we can be more thoughtful about our execution and thorough in our analysis of hits and misses.
    Some might argue that theory kills the artful side of things — I would disagree. Like they say in zen, there is freedom in the form.
    Thanks, Frank!

    • DwayneAlicie Joyous exhilaration?  Ha!  That geeks crack me up! 🙂 Thanks for a thoughtful comment — and for your fan-ship on FB!

  • YES! Thank you Thank you Thank you! For writing about theory! I went to a University that in both my undergrad and grad mass communications and public relations programs had heavy emphasis in theory. It’s great to see content reminding us of the roots of many of the tactical experiences! In practice today I’m constantly relating to my theory courses and leaning on theories like Attribution Theory, Diffusion of Innovation and more. Thanks again Frank!

    • ryanruud Excellent Ryan.  Well, a little secret is those one-page summaries for 20 and 30 page journal articles you wrote?  They make GREAT blog posts.  I still have several 4 inch binders full of them that I’ve kept all these years. Sometimes I dust them off, read them, and marvel at how much more I might have learned then I had, had, a little more time to absorb and process it all.

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