The Hierarchy Model of Advertising Effects: a Debate

Table of Content


The hierarchy model developed by Lavidge and Steiner, considered the predominant process of advertising for many years, is now being questioned. Recent analyses of empirical studies have found limited proof supporting the concept of an advertising hierarchy. Consequently, the existence of this hierarchy remains a topic of ongoing debate.

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In their recent articles published in the Journal of Advertising Research, Weilbacher and Barry have engaged in a debate regarding the hierarchy model of advertising effects. This paper aims to compare and assess the contributions of these articles to both marketing theory and practice. Additionally, implications for integrated marketing communications are discussed. Key terms: response hierarchy, advertising effect, marketing communications.


The debate over the intellectual theory of advertising, including its mechanisms and effectiveness, has persisted for many years. One proposed explanation is the hierarchy of effects, a collection of literature that proposes audiences undergo several stages (cognitive, affective, and conative) when responding to advertising and other persuasive marketing messages.

The Lavidge and Steiner hierarchy model is frequently mentioned, suggesting that advertising is a long-term investment that guides consumers through various stages, starting with unawareness of the product and ending with a purchase. However, Vakratsas and Ambler have recently conducted a review of over 250 journal articles and books to gain a better understanding of advertising’s impact on consumers. They conclude that after examining the empirical literature, there is limited evidence to support the existence of an advertising hierarchy.

Their evidence has sparked a lot of discussion, particularly through articles by Weilbacher (2001) and Barry (2002) in the Journal of Advertising Research. These articles delve into the hierarchy model of advertising effects. This paper evaluates and compares the contribution of these articles to marketing theory and practice by reviewing the existing literature. Additionally, the paper explores the implications of this for integrated marketing communications.


The advertising model they use is based on a causal hierarchy of effects, which has remained largely unchanged since the AIDA model was introduced in 1898. Advertising effects models have been studied in marketing literature for over a century. According to the traditional hierarchy framework, consumers respond to advertising messages in a systematic manner.

According to Belch and Belch, several hierarchy of effects models have been created to illustrate the stages a consumer may go through in transitioning from being unaware of a company, product, or brand to making an actual purchase [7, p.147]. Two of the most well-known response hierarchy models were developed for distinct purposes. The AIDA model represents the stages a salesperson needs to guide a customer through in the personal selling process.

This model illustrates the sequential progression of the buyer from attention to interest, desire, and action. The hierarchy of effects model, developed by Lavidge and Steiner, demonstrates the functioning of advertising. It proposes that consumers follow a series of steps in sequential order, from their initial awareness of a product or service to the ultimate purchase. Consumers modify their perceptions toward a product, followed by an adjustment in their attitude, ultimately leading to their action. Essentially, the process commences with cognition, which subsequently influences affect and, finally, behavior.

Debate about the model.

According to Weilbacher’s article “Point of View: Does Advertising Cause a Hierarchy of Effect,” the author disputes the accuracy of hierarchy of advertising effects models in describing the workings and effects of advertising, suggesting that they are unlikely to be used as a framework for measuring the true effects of advertising [8, p. 19]. In contrast, Barry, in the article “In Defense of the Hierarchy of Effects: A Rejoinder to Weilbacher,” supports the concept of a hierarchy as a significant guideline for advertising practice and research [9].

According to the author, the marketing literature still uses the hierarchy of advertising effects formulation to measure the impact of advertising. There has been a notable lack of consensus among advertising researchers about the role of advertising. Weilbacher believes that the success or failure of advertising is mainly determined by the sales it generates. He suggests that successful advertising will ultimately lead to the purchase of the advertised product or service by at least some of the exposed consumers.

According to some, if sales do not occur, it is considered that the advertising was not effective (8, p. 19). However, others view advertising as a communication process that grabs the attention of customers and showcases a product that will fulfill their needs. Gallup suggests that advertising serves a crucial role in communicating. It makes buyers aware of a product or service that will meet their needs. It informs buyers about the specific features of the product in comparison to other products (2, p.).

Hence, the diverse objectives of advertising have influenced the approach to measuring its effectiveness. The hierarchy of advertising effects model posits that advertising effects take place gradually and that there is a sequence of steps that must be completed before the consumer can progress to the next stage in the hierarchy. As stated in reference [7, p. 175], “advertising communication may not result in an immediate behavioral response or purchase; instead, a series of effects must occur.”

Despite its long-standing presence in the marketing literature, Weilbacher posits that the hierarchy of advertising effects model, which explains how advertising works, remains an intuitive explanation that lacks validation. He contends that there is an inconsistency in the hierarchy models of advertising effects when considering the effects of multiple advertisements and competitive hierarchical interactions. Ultimately, the hierarchy of effects is delicate and emphasizes the importance of the relationship between any consumer and a specific brand.

The model suggests that there is a permanent link between a brand’s advertising and the potential customer. However, consumers exist in a world with numerous brands and advertisements within specific product and service categories [8, p. 21]. Besides competing among themselves, each brand’s hierarchy of advertising effects must also contend with the hierarchies of all other brands in the category as they strive to influence the consumer’s perception of the brand.

According to Weilbacher’s article, the hierarchy model of advertising effects suffers from conceptual weaknesses that lead to its lack of intuition and validation. The hierarchy model is only applicable to advertising and while it may occasionally result in sales for certain brands, in most marketing situations sales are influenced by a variety of factors including product quality, distribution availability, competitive pricing, and an overall effective marketing communications program that includes, but is not limited to, advertising.

The hierarchy models of advertising effects are built on a presumed model of human thought processes. They view advertising as a unique stimulus that follows a set of stages or steps leading to the ultimate result of a consumer choosing or buying a brand. Nonetheless, these models fail to consider the vast amount of information and experience that consumers have access to before and after they are exposed to advertising, and which they use when thinking about or actively making brand purchases [8, p. 22].

According to the hierarchy models, all advertisements have the same impact on consumers because they function in the same manner. Weilbacher suggests that comprehending the effects of marketing communications, including advertising, is challenging due to the uncertain understanding of how the brain and its interaction with the environment is influenced by cognitive science.

Barry suggests expanding the hierarchy of effects model to include all communications activities and calls it “integrated marketing communications”. He agrees with Weilbacher’s concerns about the model, but still considers it important and valuable. Although Weilbacher challenges the sequencing of a single hierarchy model, no alternative hierarchies have been proposed so far [9, p. 4].

Barry believes that this model has been considered reasonable and viewed as a guide. The lack of explicit validation for the model is not a significant issue. The main focus is on the complexities of the measurement process to better comprehend how people process information, develop attitudes, and behave based on that information and those attitudes [9, p. 45]. Therefore, the model remains insightful and rational due to its logical approach.

According to Barry, the idea that the hierarchy model is only applicable to advertising and not other marketing communication components, as argued by Weilbacher, is incorrect. Barry believes that the concept of cognition, affect, and conation can be applied to various marketing communications. He states that the ultimate aim of all marketing communications is persuasion, as marketers strive to influence customers and prospects. The usual process involves individuals processing and evaluating the information received in a positive or negative way, and then deciding whether or not to take action.

In conclusion, the hierarchy model provides a suitable framework for all forms of marketing communication. Barry’s perspective contrasts with Weilbacher’s, as he suggests that not all advertisements have the same impact on every consumer. This supports the concept of segmentation, which recognizes that audiences differ even within similar segments. Each advertising message has a unique effect on each individual consumer, influenced by their preferences for the product category or brand.

The two authors argue that different individuals have distinct preferences when it comes to processing information, forming attitudes, and behaving. They suggest that this has various implications and calls for further research to explore the hierarchy model and develop different hierarchical models for different consumer decision making situations [9, p. 45].


Despite ongoing debate in the advertising community regarding the theory of how advertising functions, the practicality of hierarchy of effects models is undeniable. These models offer valuable implications for marketers, including the ability to forecast behavior, albeit imperfectly. Additionally, they inform practitioners on which aspects of advertising strategies to prioritize based on audience or segment experiences, and provide planners with a useful tool for planning, training, and conceptualizing [1, p. 6].

The hierarchy models are a suitable framework for all forms of communication. Promotional planners find them beneficial from various perspectives as they outline the steps potential purchasers go through to transition from being unaware of a product or service to becoming ready to purchase it [7, p. 157]. Additionally, since potential buyers can be at different stages within the hierarchy, advertisers will encounter distinct communication challenges [7, p. 150].

Moreover, hierarchy models can serve as useful indicators of communication effectiveness, providing insight into the audience’s position within the response hierarchy. For instance, it may be assumed that one target segment lacks awareness of the brand, while another segment is aware of the brand and its attributes but has a diminished liking or preference. In order to address the first market segment, the communication objective is to enhance brand awareness.

The advertiser has a few options to increase the number of advertisements or implement a product sampling program. In the second segment, where awareness is high but liking and preference are low, the advertiser should identify the cause of negative feelings and address it in future advertising [7, p. 185]. However, recent reviews of the empirical literature question the validity of the hierarchy model and recommend considering alternative approaches.

According to a comprehensive review of articles, there is limited evidence to prove the existence of an advertising hierarchy. The review also highlights three important effects that occur between advertising and purchase: cognition, affect, and experience (see Figure 2). Cognition refers to the thinking aspect of a person’s response, affect refers to the feeling aspect, and experience is based on the outcomes of product purchasing and usage.

According to [3, p. 43], individual responses to advertising are influenced by factors like motivation and information processing ability, which can significantly impact their response to advertising. The authors propose a three-dimensional evaluation of advertising effects, wherein certain intermediate variables hold more significance than others depending on factors such as product category, product life-cycle stage, target audience, competition, and the impact of other marketing mix components.

Similarly, Hall suggests that advertisers should shift away from depending solely on hierarchical models of advertising effects and instead create models that prioritize affect and experience in the advertising process (Hall, 5, p. 23). The underlying message in these critiques is that marketers should prioritize cognition, affect, and experience as crucial factors that advertising can influence.

However, it is crucial for marketers to avoid assuming a specific order of responses. Instead, they should conduct research and analysis to gain a deeper understanding of how advertising and other promotional activities can impact these intermediate variables in different product/market scenarios. Planners are accountable for acquiring extensive knowledge about their target audience and their potential reaction towards advertising and other marketing communication methods within the integrated marketing communication program. As pointed out by Weilbacher, marketing communications programs encompass more than just advertising.

Consumers are constantly exposed to marketing efforts sponsored by brands, such as public relations, sales promotions, websites, direct marketing, event sponsorships, product placements in movies and TV shows, and other forms of marketing communication. It is important for hierarchy models to go beyond simply explaining the impact of advertising and instead explore how consumers combine information from all the different integrated marketing communications activities for a brand, and the resulting effects.


From the well-known AIDA model to the recent alternative models, the hierarchy models of effects have been conceptualized as a managerial framework in advertising literature. These models follow a similar three-stage order: cognitive development comes before affective reactions, which precede behavior [6]. It can be assumed that consumers become aware of and acquire knowledge about a brand, develop emotions towards it, establish a desire or preference, and then complete a purchase. Although this logical progression is often correct, the response sequence (cognitive, affective, behavioral) does not always function in this manner.

There are various alternative hierarchical models that have been developed by advertising researchers for different situations in consumer decision making. Furthermore, there are further research challenges in understanding the effectiveness of advertising on its own and its role in complementing other marketing communication tactics.


  1. Barry, T. E. and Howard, D. J. (1990), “A Review and Critique of the Hierarchy of Effects in Advertising”, International Journal of Advertising 9(2), 121.
  2. Gallup, G. (1974), “How Advertising Works”, Journal of Advertising Research 14(3), 7.
  3. Lavidge, R. J. and Steiner, G. A. (1961), “A Model for Predictive Measurements of Advertising Effectiveness”, Journal of Marketing 25(6), 59-62.
  4. Vakratsas, D. and Ambler, T. (1999), “How Advertising Works: What Do We Really Know? ”, Journal of Marketing 63(1), 26-43.
  5. Hall, B. F. (2002), “A New Model for Measuring Advertising Effectiveness”, Journal of Advertising Research 42(2), 23-31.
  6. Yoo, C. Y. , Kim, K. and Stout, P. A. 2004), “Assessing the Effects of Animation in Online Banner Advertising: Hierarchy of Effects Model”, Journal of Interactive Advertising 4(2), 7.
  7. Belch, G. E. and Belch, M. A. (2009), Advertising and Promotion: An Integrated Marketing Communications Perspective (8th edn), The McGraw-Hill/Irwin, Boston.
  8. Weilbacher, W. M. (2001), “Point of View: Does Advertising Cause a “Hierarchy of Effects”? ”, Journal of Advertising Research 41(6), 19-26.
  9. Barry, T. E. (2002), “In defense of the hierarchy of effects: A rejoinder to Weilbacher”, Journal of Advertising Research 42(3), 44-47.

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