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John Eighmey

John Eighmey, a professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, found Harlow Gale's century-old work still relevant.

Discovering the roots of advertising psychology

John Eighmey reenacts the first experiments on the psychological effects of advertising conducted at the University over a century ago

By Ami Berger

August 8, 2006

Professor John Eighmey first came across the name "Harlow Gale" in December 2004, while preparing materials for his spring 2005 Psychology of Advertising class. A reference to a 1900 manuscript entitled "On the Psychology of Advertising" and authored by Gale caught Eighmey's attention, since he had never heard of the author or his manuscript, written well before scholars began examining advertising techniques and their effects.

Eighmey, who holds the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC)'s Mithun Land Grant Chair in Advertising, was also surprised to see that the manuscript was published in Minneapolis. Could Gale have been associated with the University of Minnesota? "At about light speed, I called U of M archivist Lois Hendrickson," Eighmey says, "and asked if there were any holdings for Harlow Gale. She replied, 'We have four boxes of his papers.'"

Within 48 hours, Eighmey and SJMC graduate student Sela Sar were in Andersen Library reading the materials, which describe Gale's work on the psychological effects of advertising at the turn of the 20th century. They discovered that Gale, who taught psychology at the University of Minnesota from 1895 to 1903, was the first scholar to undertake experimental studies on the effects of advertising. "Gale's work prefigured a number of critical concepts in advertising evaluation that are still very much in use," Eighmey says.

Although Gale's scholarship is more than a century old, Eighmey found it relevant enough to bring into his classes--literally. Last fall, Eighmey involved his Psychology of Advertising class in a full-scale reenactment of one of Gale's experiments on advertising effectiveness.

"When reading the earliest research, we often find that our predecessors had particularly acute powers of observation and expression," Eighmey says.

To reenact the study, Eighmey found and scanned copies of magazine ads Gale listed in his 1900 manuscript, put the scans in a PowerPoint presentation, and used a video projector to show each ad in a particular sequence and for a particular amount of time, just as Gale had done with subjects in a darkened room, a lamp, and cutouts of the ads more than a hundred years earlier.

"At the end of each exposure sequence, I polled the class to see which advertising elements they could recall," Eighmey says. "The results were then tabulated on the marker board as we continued through the reenactment. Remarkably," he says, "the results pretty much paralleled those of Gale."

There's an important lesson there regarding historical perspectives on the study of mass communication, says Eighmey, who has now co-authored a paper with Sar entitled "Harlow Gale and the Origins of the Psychology of Advertising" that will be published in the Journal of Advertising. "When reading the earliest research, we often find that our predecessors had particularly acute powers of observation and expression," Eighmey says. "Concepts and ideas flow from generation to generation. You really can't fully understand the larger context of an idea unless you appreciate the full meaning and implications of those original voices."