Advertising Theories

Olaf H Werder. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. 2009. Sage Publication.

Since the early 1900s, scholars have attempted to discern whether advertising has its own distinctive theories because it seemed that any serious profession should draw from a systematic analysis of its trade rather than from chance or instinct. With U.S. advertising expenditures at about $149 billion in 2007 (about 1.1% of the total U.S. gross domestic product), there is no doubt that advertising can be looked at as a serious industry. Yet when Walter Dill Scott, director of the Psychological Laboratory of Northwestern University, conducted his research in 1903 for his work on advertising theories, he could not find any reference to a theory other than psychological approaches. Even more contemporary works, such as the well-known title How Advertising Works, still describe the advertising process as a strategic communication procedure whose function is to create a psychological (and subsequently behavioral) change in a potential consumer of a product, service, or idea. Thus, when we talk about advertising theories, we basically talk about theories of consumer psychology.

Lacking its own theories but operating at the intersection of business and social sciences, advertising has not only borrowed from these disciplines but often attracted these disciplines to engage with it and explain the advertising process and its success with their own models and theories. In general, the major influence of advertising seems to occur in the area of consumer perception of a brand. To that extent, advertising must understand the meaning an object has over the life of a consumer, as well as the limits of these cultural definitions, before trying to amplify this object into a brand. Irving White provided a fitting example with the social values implied by the concept of perfume. Given that this concept invokes ideas of femininity for many individuals in the U.S. culture, advertising of male cosmetics has to carefully sidestep beliefs about femininity and narcissism. At the same time, this example illustrates how conceptual valuations of an object or idea—ideas, beliefs, feelings, and actions expressed by members of a culture—can shift over time. Today’s brand advertising of male-oriented cosmetic products is different from that of just 20 or 30 years ago for the very reason that perceptions of men using perfume have changed.

The idea of how people come to understand and relate to artifacts is of interest to social psychology and anthropology. As thinkers such as George Herbert Mead and Jean Piaget have indicated, the relationship between objects and users is dynamic; as individuals acculturate into the larger society, they redefine their relationship to an object in accordance with the values frame of their environment. Culture, in other words, fills a product with meaning based on biological, social, and psychic needs the product fulfills. In other words, consumers purchase not just the plain product but also the multitude of meanings associated with the product. The function of advertising is to create subcategories of values and needs within the social structure and to connect these with the product. Consumers then select those brands whose sets of implied experiences fit into the subgroup with which they identify.

With the growing globalization of brands in an emerging global marketplace, advertising increasingly takes (sub)cultural differences into account. The different social histories of Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world produce consumers who exhibit unique cultural characteristics that influence their needs and wants, their methods of satisfying them, and the messages to which they are most likely to respond. Failure to understand the cultural environment can lead to miscommunication. Beginning to understand that words and symbols have specific meanings for consumers in a given culture, scholars in international advertising turned to the idea of cultural distance. Advertising studies now include the analyses of the meaning of verbal and nonverbal language, concepts of time and space, and cultural-values indicators such as individualism-collectivism, masculinity-femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term versus short-term orientation.

It is difficult to succinctly group theoretical approaches to advertising into neat categories since the literature on advertising is varied and is rooted in different premises. For instance, works focusing on the functional areas of advertising would group it by campaign creation, media placement, budgeting, and testing and measurement. Literature focusing on advertising processes would highlight rational and emotional theories of persuasion such as the elaboration likelihood model and conditioning theories. Literature focusing on advertising outcomes would categorize along persuasive components such asargument strategies, arousal strategies, and endorser strategies. Psychological process analyses would regard persuasion as one component of effects, along with attitude change and involvement. Finally, popular culture studies would analyze advertisements themselves as an expression of symbolic structures that give significance and importance via subjective constructions and decoding procedures (e.g., presentation of minorities and women, commercialism, group dynamics). In addition, the different approaches are highly interrelated and overlapping. For instance, affective and cognitive models populate all but one approach. Therefore, the most prevalent theories will be discussed here, acknowledging that many others exist.

Hierarchy-of-Effects Models

Originally developed in the personal-selling literature, the hierarchy-of-effects model has undergone various modifications in its historical development such that today we use it in the plural form, indicating that competing models exist.

In 1898, St. Elmo Lewis proposed a stair-step hierarchical framework that theorized the necessity for salespeople to attract attention, interest, and desire in a logical sequence. By the later addition of action as a final step, this original model came to be known as action-implicative discourse analysis, which is still one of the most referred-to models in the advertising and sales literature. In the 1960s, Robert Lavidge and Gary Steiner challenged the immediate-sales argument of advertising effectiveness, arguing instead that advertising effects are often long-term in nature and do not necessarily translate into sales (e.g., brand image building). They proposed seven steps consumers go through en route to the purchasing point: unawareness, awareness, knowledge, favorable attitude toward the product, favorable attitude toward the brand, desire and conviction, and actual purchase. At the same time, Russell Coney developed his model, known as defining advertising goals for measured advertising results, which stressed an awareness, comprehension, conviction, and action hierarchy. Coney reasoned that most advertising objectives were too vague for their effectiveness to be measured with sales data and hence should be measured with communication objectives.

While these models loosely touched on the cognition, affect, and conviction stages, psychological and sociological research addressing the consistency between attitudes and beliefs incorporated the described hierarchy of persuasive communication into consumer behavior models. For example, William McGuire’s information processing model suggested that information first has to be presented, then attended to, then comprehended, then yielded to, then retained, and finally acted on.

A serious challenge to the traditional hierarchy came in the 1970s from Michael Ray and his colleagues, who argued that there are actually three different models that can explain audience responses. The first, the so-called learning model, puts cognitive understanding (thinking) first, before attitude development (feeling) and later action (behaving). This model most closely resembles the original models discussed above. A second model, known as dissonance-attribution hierarchy, suggests a reversal of the previous model, that is, consumers first behave or act, then develop feelings toward the brand as a result of their actions, and finally create cognitive arguments to support their behavior. Finally, as the result of research on repetition and slow learning processes in advertising, the third model, known as the low-involvement hierarchy, contends that consumers act, then learn as a result, and finally develop feelings and attitudes from the combined results of the behavior and learning.

Despite the ongoing modification attempts to its structure, the persistent attention given to the hierarchy of effects in advertising research attests to its continuing importance. Nevertheless, questions about the direction of research tied to this concept remain. For instance, a result of challenges and subsequent debates about the “right” hierarchy has been a growing perception that advertising might be less powerful than originally thought and that its main contribution lies more in its reinforcement of an idea than in its original persuasive force. Moreover, hierarchy-of-effects models are theoretically weak as they are missing the motivational mechanisms necessary to explain how to move individuals to the various stages in the models. Finally, given the many influence factors present, advertising’s impact on sales seems to be less immediate and direct than originally assumed. One factor, for instance, is the concept of involvement, which has been considered by many as a crucial mediating variable in the sequential nature of the three main phases of the hierarchy of effects.

Audience Involvement

In response to the accepted position that persuasive communication depends on active message processing, Herbert Krugman, in 1965, offered a thesis that linked message effectiveness with the audience’s degree or lack of personal involvement with the message. More specifically, Krugman understood involvement not as attention or interest but as connections that an audience member makes between the message stimuli and the member’s own life; Krugman distinguished between two types of involvement (high and low), both of which can lead to effective advertising. The argument goes that a decrease in involvement does not increase resistance to the message but rather lowers processing; that is, learning is passive as consumers do not connect the message with a personal want or need and hence learn information randomly as a result of repetitive message encounter. In high involvement, a message acts directly on modifying beliefs; in low involvement, the impact is rather on exposure to sensory appeals (e.g., brand logos). As the latter occurs more gradually, effectiveness requires repeated exposure. According to Krugman, there are only three levels of exposure in psychological terms: curiosity, recognition, and decision. Since many advertisers misunderstood his arguments as ideas about effective media planning and placement, his thesis of a frequency of three subsequently became ensnared in debates about message repetition and recency effects.

Involvement also plays a pivotal role in Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif and colleagues’ work in social judgment theory. According to the theory, the level of ego involvement depends on whether the issue arouses an intense attitude. It further argues that individuals who are highly involved in an issue are more likely to evaluate all possible positions, therefore increasing their standpoint of unaccept-ability regarding the issue. Because discrepant positions are less tolerable when a person is highly involved, highly involved individuals will be harder to persuade than will uninvolved individuals. Uninvolved consumers are willing to consider more brands but less willing to evaluate brands. In short, lack of involvement leads to perception with little or no cognitive activity.

A third theory connected with involvement is the elaboration likelihood model, a framework developed by psychologists Richard Petty and John Cacioppo in 1981. This cognitive-process model derives its name from the likelihood that a person thinks deeply (elaborates) about an advertisement when exposed to it and is primarily concerned with changing the direction of attitudes through persuasion. The basic premise of this model is that the route by which a message persuades consumers depends on their involvement with the message. Two routes exist: the central route and the peripheral route. In the former, people have both the motivation and the ability to evaluate the message and will hence diligently process the message; that is, they will look for and respond to strong arguments in favor of the message and counter what they perceive as weak arguments. In the latter, people may lack the motivation or ability to evaluate the message and thus are more likely to respond to cues associated with the message, such as entertainment value or a celebrity spokesperson, rather than to cognitive arguments. In short, high involvement leads to central processing resembling traditional hierarchy models, whereas low involvement leads to peripheral processing.

Important to note is that attitude change in terms of central processing is the result of thoughtful reflection on information. As such, change does not occur just as an outward compliance (behavior change) but indicates a change in beliefs (personal acceptance or a shift in values or opinion). This kind of change, then, is seen as fairly stable and resistant to counterarguments that may be encountered later. Attitude change in the peripheral route of processing, on the other hand, emanates from affective cues or social compliance. While it seems plausible to assume that this would lead to an unstable change process, this is not necessarily so. Empirical work based on the model has shown that people can internalize a message solely on the fact that it is socially and emotionally satisfying; that is, persuasion relies not necessarily on information and logic alone but also on social and affective factors.

Theories of Personality and Motivation

In the discussion of advertising strategy and consumer targeting, one central topic is the factors within the recipient of a message that render an advertising appeal successful; that is, how can messages use an individual’s personality or motivation to create favorable brand attitudes and images? Individual factors include the reasonably stable patterns of emotions, motives, and behavior that distinguish one person from another. Personality is the key to adjustment. Similarly, most motivation theorists assume that motivation is involved in the performance of all learned responses; that is, a learned behavior will not occur unless it is energized. The major question among psychologists, in general, is whether motivation is a primary or secondary influence on behavior. That is, are changes in behavior better explained by principles of environmental influences, perception, memory, cognitive development, and emotion, or are concepts unique to motivation more pertinent?

Association Theories

Associationism in philosophy refers to the idea that mental processes operate by the association of one state with its successor states. The idea was first recorded in Plato and Aristotle, especially with regard to the succession of memories. Four principles define the core of the theory: (1) All ideas are associated together in the mind through experience; (2) all ideas can be reduced to a basic stock of simple ideas; (3) these simple ideas are elementary, unstructured sensations; and (4) simple, additive rules are sufficient to predict the properties of complex ideas from the properties of the underlying simple ideas.

Association theory was advanced primarily by a succession of 18th- and 19th-century British philosophers, such as John Locke, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill. Many principles have been proposed to explain how ideas become associated with each other. These include contiguity (ideas formed close together in time), repetition (ideas that occur together repeatedly), recency (associations formed recently are the easiest to remember), and vividness (the most vivid experiences form the strongest associative bonds). A closely related concept to associationism is behaviorism, whose principles of conditioning are based on the association of responses to stimuli.

The relevance of the above principles for advertising becomes evident when we consider that humans are able to associate with each other via symbolic bonds and thus have collective existences built on symbols that encapsulate shared memories. Therefore, the aim of consumer advertising is to associate products with symbols that exemplify values, group identity, pleasure, achievement, and the like. Since brand names themselves carry associations, the idea of brand image is entirely based on association concepts as anything associated with a brand has the potential to affect its image.

Furthermore, brand image is often used as a heuristic for brand choice. On one hand, it saves cognitive energy (consumer as cognitive miser concept); on the other hand, it relieves or avoids inner tension or doubt about the choice (cognitive dissonance and loyalty concept). Since this choice is consequently purely one of likability and trust, advertising has to make sure of two things. First, it must create a likable and trustworthy association cue, such as a likable spokesperson, a positive emotional state (nostalgia, fun), or effective symbolism (patriotic signs, desirable lifestyles). Second, it must monitor consumers’ impression of these cues over time. The effect that, for instance, a celebrity spokesperson’s tarnished image can have on a brand (Martha Stewart and Kmart, Kobe Bryant and Nike) is an example of the close connection that is built in people’s minds.

Reversal Theory

Reversal theory is a theory of motivation and emotion. Unlike conventional trait theories, which measure the amount and consistency of one’s behavior, reversal theory focuses on flexibility and what spurs reversals from one psychological state to another. The theory is organized into four domains of focus (means-end, rules, transactions, and relationships). Each has two opposing motivational states. An individual reverses between states as situations—and the meaning one attributes to them—change. A person’s emotions result from whether one’s motives are being fulfilled or not. If they are, good emotions result; if they are not, negative emotions emerge. The theory’s name comes from the idea that there is a frequent switching between the two modes. If we are bored, we seek excitement; if we are anxious, we seek relaxation.

Advertising applies these ideas in two ways: (1) It aims to understand the mental state that is conducive to positive brand associations in order to create targeted strategies (e.g., destination marketing), and (2) it attempts to switch someone’s motivation in order to be able to reduce the number of valid arguments that need to be brought forth to influence someone (e.g., when in a positive, playful mood, people create fewer counterarguments).


Advertising is a complex and diverse field, and often even those involved with it have difficulty discerning what works and why. In 1976, Charles Ramond argued that advertising has no general theory that is widely accepted but forms a discipline in which a collection of pseudotheories exist whose reason for existence is introspection. While advertising typically uses information, the emphasis in a persuasive advertising message is on influencing the receiver. Moreover, since the advent of the Internet and online marketing, the long-held notion of the mass market has given way to that of a more individualized consumer as digital consumers are no longer “passive” receivers of the advertiser’s message but will actively select the advertising message or completely disregard it. New theoretical models are emerging to explain the many-to-many communication processes evolving.