How Advertising Works: A Planning Model. .. putting it all together
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How Advertising Works:
A Planning Model . . . putting it all together.

Vaughn, Richard. 1980. How advertising works: A planning model. Journal of Advertising Research. 20(5): 27–33. Reprinted with permssion of Foote, Cone & Belding.

The advertising industry has long been challenged to explain how advertising works. That it does work is not an issue. But how it works and why it works are critical concerns still unresolved.

If we had a proven theory of advertising effectiveness it would help in strategy planning, response measurement and sales prediction. We have no such theory. Empirical “proof” is scattered in numerous company and agency files. The possibility for a scientifically-derived model of advertising seems remote.

Despite this difficulty, increasing costs and competitiveness require that we make an effort to comprehensively address how advertising works. The subject is important, complex and dynamic. It is important to manufacturers as a marketing expense/brand investment, and to advertising agencies as a product of their creative energies. It is complex because communication theories are not unified, and evidence is scarce. And, finally, it is dynamic because recent marketplace experience has provoked newer, controversial explanations.

Advertising is unlike the direct communication between two people which involves a give-and-take experience. It is a one-way exchange that is impersonal in format. To compensate, advertising must often make greater use of both rational and emotional devices to have an effect. People can selectively notice or avoid, accept or reject, remember or forget the experience and thereby confound the best of advertising plans.

To understand how advertising works, it’s necessary to explore the possibilities people have for thinking, feeling and behaving toward the various products and services in their lives. This isn’t easy because we are all capable of being logical and illogical, objective and subjective, obvious and subtle simultaneously. Everything considered, it’s not surprising that a unified theory of advertising effectiveness has eluded us for so long.

This paper presents an overview that sketches, rather than details where we are, where we have been, and where we may be going in advertising effectiveness theory. To accomplish this task, the following outline will be pursued:

  • Traditional Advertising Theories prevalent in the 1950’s are reviewed as background.

  • Consumer Behavior Models representing the 1960’s trend toward comprehensive, sequential theories are discussed.

  • Recent Developments in high/low involvement and right/left brain theories are introduced.

  • An FCB Model is presented which organizes advertising effectiveness theory for strategy planning.

There is a tendency for advertisers to be defensive about this subject. Frankly, one theory seems as plausible as another in certain situations, and the pros and cons often result in a stalemate. This paper, however, is assertive and positive. This is so for two reasons: (1) To establish key points and (2) To stimulate further discussion.

The greater purpose, of course, is a better understanding of strategy options and ways of planning, creating, executing and testing more effective advertising. The new FCB model is a major step in that direction.

Traditional Theories

Four traditional theories of advertising effectiveness have been prominent in marketing:

  • Economic—a rational consumer who consciously considers functional cost-utility information in a purchase decision.

  • Responsive—a habitual consumer conditioned to thoughtlessly buy through rote, stimulus-response learning.

  • Psychological—an unpredictable consumer who buys compulsively under the influence of unconscious thoughts and indirect emotions.

  • Social—a compliant consumer who continually adjusts purchases to satisfy cultural and group needs for conformity.

While these theories have had proponents who defended them as sole explanations of consumer behavior, most marketers now consider them at best only partial explanations. These theories were most topical in the 1950’s and can be summarized as follows:

  • Economic theory says consumers act in their own financial self-interest. They look for maximum utility at the lowest cost. Rational, methodical calculation is pre-supposed, so price demand equations are used to calculate aggregate consumer behavior. Consumers must have functional information to make a decision. This old, much-revered theory most often applies to commodity items. It is highly respected by economic forecasters and is the only theory widely publicized by U.S. government regulatory agencies.

  • Responsive theory tells us...