Scientific American on why copywriters are the most important people in advertising

A scientist looks at how our understanding of concepts varies from person to person and that variation becomes part of our personality.

In this edition of Today in Science, conceptual differences, even of the simplest words, show up everywhere, and most people have no idea that others think differently than they do.

Psychological studies show that people have very different concepts in their minds for most words. Even simple words like “penguin” conjure varying images in many people’s minds. So it makes sense that for more complicated and nuanced topics like climate change, a shared understanding is rare.

Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist at University College London found in studies that the concepts of “risk,” “uncertainty” and “threat” (all terms used in the climate discussion) mean very different things to people. Such differences are underpinned by differences in how the brain represents concepts, a process influenced by politics, emotion and character, according to neuroscience research.

De Meyer’s key findings:


  • The very term “concept” is difficult to define. A good rough idea of what it means is that concepts are all the properties, examples, and associations we think of when we use, hear or read a word. 
  • Two steps offer a way forward: making people become aware of their differences and encouraging them to choose new language that is free of conceptual baggage.
  • Concepts are different from dictionary definitions, which are rigorously determined and specific.
  • When we use language in everyday life concepts are central to what we actually mean.
  • The issue gets worse for more abstract words, however, such as “fairness” or “freedom.”
  • Neuroscientists have also found that emotion is involved in shaping how the brain represents abstract concepts. As a consequence, people can become resistant to change.
  • Because they’re abstract, you fill them with your own meaning, and they become tied to your identity.

Psychologists have found that once a concept becomes part of someone’s identity, it becomes difficult to shift.

While this originated in the context of a climate change conference, it got me to thinking, if people have such trouble agreeing on terms like “risk”, and imbue such terms with personal meaning, what is probably going on in real life?

That’s why we find copywriters, with their mastery of the language, the most important part of advertising creative.

For advertising there are some really clear paths to better persuasion:


  • Combine imagery with words so that each supports the other unambiguously
  • For simple decisions, appeal to emotions but, for more complex decisions (e.g., a car) combine emotions with facts that support the emotions. For example, if a car ad is meant to communicate “a safe environment” you might want to mention an intelligent braking or collision avoidance system
  • Be single focused: if it is hard to communicate ONE concept clearly, imagine mixing 2 or 3 in the same ad.
  • If you are in digital, A/B test continuously –even changing a couple of words can have a huge impact on response.