Advertising Through The Years: Features, Benefits, And The Customer


The header graph above illustrates a curious trend I've seen regarding advertising/marketing over time.

It's no surprise that our attention spans have decreased considerably. But over time, there have been interesting changes in the ways we communicate features and benefits.

I'm wondering: have we gone full circle? Do we care more today about products than in recent decades?

Epoch 1: Product Features Rule

Early advertisements featured a lot of text; consumers appear to have had more time and patience for ads back then. And the focus is squarely on the product's features.

Consider this 1898 ad for the Western Electrical Supply Company (courtesy of


This ad fits into the first row of my header graph - it focuses on the product's features. In this case, simple brightening and dimming capabilities and the connection of a circuit sans socket or receptacle.

Epoch 2: Product Benefits Rule

This next time period focused on the benefits a product could provide, while still prominently featuring the product, itself. David Ogilvy defined it in his book, Confessions of an Advertising Man:

"The key to success is to promise the consumer a benefit - like better flavor, whiter wash, more miles per gallon, a better complexion." (page 25)

You can see an example of this in Oglivy's own "Head Over Heels In Dove" ad, seen on page 72 of On Advertising. (You can also find it as the first result in this Google search, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

The focus is on the benefit to the consumer, rather than the features of the product. Additionally, the text is greatly decreased (though still far more than we would have today) - indicating a decreasing lack of consumer attention.

Epoch 3: Consumer Benefits Rule

As shown in the header graph, epoch 3 is characterized by an ever shrinking attention span, and a shift of focus from the product to the consumer, herself.

Think about your quintessential '80s beer commercials.

Products no longer seem to just add to the consumer's life - they create something new, something totally outside of the ability of that product. In epoch 3, a light beer can create an insta-party, complete with co-eds, cult status, and catchphrases. Here is one example (courtesy of

Cotler's Pants

These jeans do not come with an orgasm guarantee, but it'd be understandable if you thought that from the ad. Whatever the ad is trying to communicate goes way beyond any benefit of the jeans.

Epoch 4: Product Features Rule...Again?

So what's happening today?

I would argue that in this fourth epoch - our modern day today - we've actually gone back to an emphasis on product features. This might sound crazy, but hear me out.

Ads are now just the entry point. Instead of being the only means of communication as they were before, now ads point us to websites where we can explore whatever information we care to.

You'll notice in my header graph that this epoch is marked by an even shorter attention span, but a wider one as well - to accommodate the research consumers do online. Think about all the time you've spent checking out products on Amazon or specialty sites like AutoTrader before you've made your purchase.

Augustine Fou touched on this process in his ClickZ article recently:

Modern consumers will tend to go online and do their own research to inform their own purchase decisions, rather than rely on what a paid ad claims. Finding objective information from an advertiser or simply knowing what information is official, standard, or true, is far more useful than the superficial claims made in very brief ads.

Let's take one more look at that header graph:


So, what do you think? Have we gone full circle - back to caring most about product features?

In each epoch (shown by the white numbers in black circles), there seems to have been a change in behavior in how we advertise the product to the consumer (the little green guy).

Does this make sense or is it all a bunch of bunk?

I'd love to hear what you think in the comments section below.

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