The Hierarchy Model of Advertising Effects: a Debate

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Nguyen Hoang Sinh, MA

Faculty of Business Administration, Ho Chi Minh Open University


The most often cited hierarchy model was developed by Lavidge and Steiner, and this has been regarded as the process by which advertising works for decades. But some recent reviews of the empirical literature found little evidence to support the existence of an advertising hierarchy, and this continues to be the subject of debate. Most recently, Weilbacher and Barry have debated the hierarchy model of advertising effects in their articles published in Journal of Advertising Research. In this paper, the contribution of these articles to marketing theory, as well as practice are compared and assessed. The paper then concludes with implications for integrated marketing communications.

Keywords: response hierarchy, advertising effect, marketing communications.


Advertising has existed for many decades but the intellectual theory of advertising such as how it works and why it works are still debatable issues in academia and industry [1]. One suggested explanation is the hierarchy of effects, a body of literature that posits that audiences go through a variety of stages (cognitive, affective, and conative) in responding to advertising and other persuasive marketing messages [1] [2] [3]. The most often cited hierarchy model was posited by Lavidge and Steiner [3], who believed that advertising was an investment in a long term process that moved consumers over time through a series of stages beginning with product unawareness and ending with an actual purchase.

However, Vakratsas and Ambler have recently reviewed more than 250 journal articles and books in an effort to better understand how advertising works and affects the consumer. They state that ‘a review of the empirical literature found little evidence to support the existence of an advertising hierarchy’ [4, p. 26]. Their evidence initiated much debate most recently by Weilbacher (2001) and Barry (2002) in their articles published in Journal of Advertising Research, where they discuss the hierarchy model of advertising effects.

In this paper, a comparison and assessment is made of the contribution of articles to marketing theory and practice, based on reviewing the published literature. The paper also examines the implications of this for integrated marketing communications.


The conceptual model they implicitly apply to advertising is a simple causal hierarchy of effects [4], little changed in its essentials from the AIDA model, which has been around since 1898 [5].

Hierarchy of advertising effects models have been around in the literature of marketing for more than a century [6]. The traditional hierarchy framework asserts that consumers respond to advertising messages in a very ordered way. According to Belch and Belch, ‘a number of the hierarchy of effects models have been developed to depict the stages a consumer may pass through in moving from a stage of not being aware of a company, product, or brand to actual purchase behavior’ [7, p. 147]. In two of the best-known response hierarchy models (see Figure 1), while these response models may appear similar, they were developed for different reasons.


Figure 1: Response Hierarchy Models [7, p. 156]

The AIDA model was developed to represent the stages a salesperson must take a customer through in the personal selling process [7]. This model depicts the buyer as passing successively through attention, interest, desire, and action. The hierarchy of effects model was developed by Lavidge and Steiner showing the process by which advertising works [3]. It assumes that ‘a consumer passes through a series of steps in sequential order from initial awareness of a product or service to actual purchase’ [7]. Consumers change their minds about a product, then they change their attitude, and then...
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