Hard-sell advertising uses a direct "reason why" approach that informs the headline, body copy and visual components of the advertisement, all of which focus attention on how the consumer can directly benefit from using the advertised product. The assumption about consumer decision-making underlying this approach is that such decisions are rational and reasoned.
Soft-sell advertising, on the other hand, is more subtle and indirect. Instead of emphasizing rational benefits, such ads attempt to influence the consumer by evoking positive emotional responses that are then associated with the advertised brand or service. Ad elements that are humorous, warm and friendly are used to elicit those responses. The assumption about consumer decision-making underlying the soft-sell strategy is that such decisions are based on feelings.
In 1897, Charles Austin Bates described advertising as "salesmanship in print." However, Mr. Bates' notion did not gain much notice until 1904, when John E. Kennedy described advertising in similar terms to Albert Lasker in order to land a copywriting job at Lord & Thomas. Under Mr. Kennedy's influence, Lord & Thomas pioneered the hard-sell strategy, an approach soon copied by numerous other shops.
Claude Hopkins, hired by Mr. Lasker as a copywriter, put his own stamp on the Kennedy style by creating brand images in advertisements, and Lord & Thomas had a major influence on the practice of advertising through the 1930s, when Mr. Lasker retired.
Another major innovator of the hard-sell method was Rosser Reeves at Ted Bates Inc. in the 1940s. Mr. Reeves advocated a straightforward style represented by his concept of the "unique selling proposition" or USP. He insisted that every ad offer a USP for the product being sold and taught that these propositions must be developed according to three distinct guidelines.
First, the USP must involve a specific product benefit; second, the USP must be unique; and third, it must sell. Memorable USPs created by Bates include: "M&M candies melt in your mouth, not in your hand" and "Colgate cleans your breath as it cleans your teeth."
In 1914, Theodore MacManus of MacManus, John & Adams wrote the classic model of the soft-sell or "impressionistic" ad. The headline was "The penalty of leadership," and beneath it was an eloquent, thoughtful essay on the burdens of being associated with being the best in one's field. The copy never mentioned the advertiser, Cadillac, and no illustration accompanied the ad. It ran in The Saturday Evening Post on Jan. 2, 1915, and became one of the most influential single ads ever written.
In the 1920s and '30s, Raymond Rubicam carried on the MacManus tradition at Young & Rubicam. In radio, the agency became an early pioneer in integrating spots into the flow of comedy and variety programs. Comedian Jack Benny's commercials for Jell-O, for example, often became part of the story line of his show.
The agency that best epitomized the soft-sell approach after World War II was Doyle Dane Bernbach. William Bernbach's approach emphasized creative execution, sometimes at the expense of content. Entertainment and humor became trademarks of the Bernbach style, and both were used to gain the consumer's attention and reward those who investigated the ads more fully.
Mr. Bernbach was responsible for a number of memorable ad campaigns. In 1962, DDB created the "We're No. 2, we try harder" campaign for Avis Rent a Car. The agency also created the "Lemon" ad for Volkswagen. When the VW Beetle ad debuted in 1960, the concept of humorously disparaging the advertised product was quite radical; the "Lemon" ad thus represented the birth of irony in modern advertising.
Finding a happy median
Whereas Messrs. Reeves and Bernbach represent the hard-sell/soft-sell extremes, other agencies have blended the two approaches.
David Ogilvy considered the content of an ad to be its most important element, stressing to copywriters that "what you say is more important than how you say it." His ads had a visual style that emphasized clarity of content, blending classic serif type fonts in capital and lowercase letters and using an editorial layout embracing illustrations that were captioned.
Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, became known for creating dramatic ads that were both "warm" and "believable," including the "Jolly Green Giant" and the "Marlboro Man."
At the beginning of the 21st century, the hard-sell/soft-sell debate remained a source of controversy among practitioners and academics. Because agencies typically combine elements of both approaches in contemporary campaigns, it seemed likely that in the future parties in this debate would focus on what degree of hard- or soft-sell is best.