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. )

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.

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