Ehrenberg’s View of Advertising
In 1961, the very ﬁrst volume of the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR) featured an
article from a young researcher from a commercial market research agency named
Andrew Ehrenberg. It’s to the credit of JAR to publish an article that was by a British
practitioner and featured UK data - this was long before other US marketing journals
decided to try to embrace an international outlook. Every decade thereafter JAR featured
articles by Andrew Ehrenberg with his collaborators; 20 articles spanning 1961-2002.
Andrew went on to be Professor of Marketing and Communication at London Business
School and later London South Bank University. He published over 300 scholarly articles
in many journals, including the prestigious science journal Nature, but it is JAR (and
perhaps also Admap) readers who can best claim to have an appreciation of the breadth
of Ehrenberg’s work and his impact. In JAR he published on advertising of course, but
also pricing, marketing metrics, the need for scientiﬁc laws, new products, data analysis,
modelling and the communication of data.
That original article, on measuring TV viewing, was sensible, practical and clear - classic
Andrew Ehrenberg, yet it gave no hint, not the slightest tremor to forewarn of the
shockwaves that his later articles would produce.
In 1974 he published Repetitive Advertising and the Consumer which bluntly set out his
early views on how advertising works, that is, not by persuasion or manipulation (through
either emotional or rational mechanisms). It was a radical thesis, even 26 years later
Ambler would write “The assumption that advertising equals persuasion is so ingrained in
the USA that a challenge elicits much the same reaction as questioning your partners
parentage” (Ambler, 2000). If Andrew had just taken on rational persuasion he would have
made many friends in advertising agencies - and he would have seemed very modern
(even today, when fashionable neuroscience has once again thrown a spotlight on
emotion). But Andrew went a step further to dismiss the notion that because advertising
contained emotional content that it must work through persuasion, by unconscious
manipulation, by building irrational preferences.
Advertising theorists have long tended to do so from their armchairs, some from ad agency
experience, and some from laboratory experiments – whereas Andrew had by then spent
almost 20 years studying data on the real-world repeat-buying of consumers, no wonder
he saw things differently. But in this article he gave only the briefest description of the
robust patterns in buying behaviour and attitudes that underpinned his views. I remember
Andrew being upset when it was reprinted in the 2003 volume of JAR featuring “classics” -
contributions to advertising research that were deemed to have had lasting value. Of
course it was a great honor, but he feared that people would think that’s what he was
saying in 2003. That 1974 article contains some exemplary thinking but he felt it was too
blunt and assertive, with little ﬂesh on the bones of the argument and so easily
misinterpreted and/or misrepresented. Andrew was a harsh critic of his own work, he felt
he wrote poorly and wouldn’t release anything until it had be revised many dozens of times
(much to the lament of his co-authors, but his readers beneﬁted).
In 1997 he described the patterns in buying behaviour that under-pinned his views in the
article Advertising: Strongly Persuasive or Nudging? - I suspect that this empirical
evidence of consumers’ ‘polygamous loyalty’ was just as earth-shattering to many readers
as was Andrew’s thesis that advertising works largely by reinforcing and gently nudging
existing habitual loyalties.
But it was Advertising as Creative Publicity that Andrew wanted people to read. By then
Andrew had ﬁlled in some of the gaps, for example, he had systematically documented the
fact that a large proportion of advertisements (about half) do not even try to persuade
(Ehrenberg et al., 2000, Mills et al., 2000). But most importantly this article brought in
memory research and theory to explain how advertising could affect sales without using
persuasion. This article also touched on the need for advertising to make the brand
distinctive rather than differentiated.
Here was theory that ﬁtted the real-world facts, and this was the way Andrew liked things.
He felt that social scientists should follow the proven route usually followed by the physical
sciences, that is, to ﬁrst look for real-world law-like patterns that generalize across a wide
range of conditions - and only then seek to craft theory, i.e. explanations should be built
around scientiﬁc laws. He wanted to move marketing research on from the traditional
approach of armchair theorizing leading to qualitative hypotheses which are ‘tested’ by
subjecting a single idiosyncratic set of data to obscure statistical analysis. He called the
models that academics and practitioners created without a foundation of scientiﬁc laws as
SONKing (the Scientification of Non-Knowledge).
If you had been trained to do research by SONKing then Ehrenberg’s writing was
confronting, though to some it was like a breath of fresh air. Similarly, if your life consisted
of writing or implementing advertising briefs centered on ‘unique selling points’, brand
differentiation, and points of difference then Ehrenberg’s view of advertising provoked an
emotional reaction, people either felt threatened or liberated. The Ehrenbergian view
places much greater importance on creativity, on branding, on understanding memory
structures. It’s a positive story for advertising practitioners, many of whom were attracted
into the advertising industry by creative brand-oriented advertising.
[This] model of advertising seems to account for the known facts, but many quantitative
details still need elucidation. Such developments could markedly inﬂuence the planning,
execution, and evaluation of advertising. Andrew Ehrenberg 1974.
Today there is much work for researchers to understand how advertising can best throw a
spotlight on a brand and refresh and build memory structures. And marketers need to
better understand the memory structures that are devoted to their brand, and how these
are distributed throughout the minds of the buying population. Andrew Ehrenberg gave us
a new perspective on what was important to do in our advertising and what was important
Professor Byron Sharp
Director, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science
University of South Australia
Andrew Ehrenberg was awarded a Gold Medal of the UK’s Market Research Society (twice), an Honorary
Fellowship of the Royal Statistical Society, an honorary doctorate from the University of South Australia, and
a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Advertising Research Foundation. He was born on May 1, 1926, he
died after a long illness on August 25, 2010, aged 84.
AMBLER, T. 2000. Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice: How Ads Work. International Journal
of Advertising, 19, 299-315.
BARNARD, N. & EHRENBERG, A. 1997. Advertising: Strongly Persuasive or Nudging?
Journal of Advertising Research, 37, 21-28.
EHRENBERG, A. S. C. 1974. Repetitive Advertising and the Consumer. Journal of
Advertising Research, 14, 25-34.
EHRENBERG, A. S. C., BARNARD, N., KENNEDY, R. & BLOOM, H. 2002. Brand
advertising as creative publicity. Journal of Advertising Research, 42, 7-18.
EHRENBERG, A. S. C., MILLS, P. & KENNEDY, R. Year. The Form that Ads Take (FAT) - A
Snapshot of UK Magazine Ads as Seen by the Public. In: 29th European Marketing
Academy Conference, 23-26 May 2000 Rotterdam. pdf copy on server EMAC
papers session 5.3.4.: Erasmus University.
MILLS, P., KENNEDY, R., EHRENBERG, A. & SCHLAEPPI, T. Year. The Forms That TV
Ads Take. In: FELLOWS, D., ed. ARF/ESOMAR Worldwide Electronic and
Broadcast Audience Research Conference, 7-9 May 2000 Bal Harbour, Florida,
USA. Advertising Research Foundation/ESOMAR, 39-49.