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Journal of Advertising, 44(4), 429433

Copyright 2015, American Academy of Advertising


ISSN: 0091-3367 print / 1557-7805 online
DOI: 10.1080/00913367.2015.1060909

Invited Article Series: Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future

The Journal of Advertising and the Development


of Advertising Theory: Reflections and Directions
for Future Research
Russell N. Laczniak
Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, USA

In this article, I provide some thoughts that guided my decision


making while I was editor of the Journal of Advertising (2003
2006). Specifically, I reflect on the definition of theory and how it
has been and should be used in the advertising discipline. In
particular, I attempt to distinguish between weaker (contextual)
and stronger (universal) theories and present my views on how
future research in advertising can proceed in developing useful
theories within this domain.

When current Journal of Advertising (JA) editor Shintaro


Okazaki asked me to develop a reflections essay regarding my
own time as editor, I thought of many different topics to
address. My initial thought was to highlight what I considered
to be the best articles published in JA during my time of service. However, as readers undoubtedly know, JA presents a
best paper award annually; I assume that most readers have at
least scanned these best papers after the awards were presented. So my thoughts regarding such an oration seemed
moot at best. My second thought was to simply thank all past
and future contributors to JA. However, so much effort goes
into putting together a single issue (not to mention the 160
issues or so that have been published to date) that I would
spend virtually all of my allotted words simply listing
namesthough with special thanks to my predecessor, Ron
Faber, and JA executive editor, Harry Briggs; their collective

Address correspondence to Russell N. Laczniak, John and Connie


Stafford Professor of Marketing, Interim Associate Dean of Graduate
Programs and Research, Iowa State University, College of Business,
Robert H. Cox Deans Suite, 2200 Gerdin Business Building, Ames,
IA 50011. E-mail: laczniak@iastate.edu
Russell N. Laczniak (PhD, University of NebraskaLincoln) is the
John and Connie Stafford professor of marketing and interim associate dean of graduate programs and research, College of Business,
Iowa State University.

efforts made my job much easier. I quickly passed on that idea


as well. (Yet I do now take the opportunity to offer my thanks
to all of those authors, reviewers, copy editors, printers, and
other behind-the-scenes people who helped me produce 16
issues of JA between 2003 and 2007). But I then read Len
Reids (2014) and Les Carlsons (2015) essays that provided
some historical perspectives of JA, along with some recommendations for future researchmost of which, by the way, I
wholeheartedly support. I knew that I did not want simply to
mimic Len and Les; I wanted to share my thoughts about editing JA, comment on future research in advertising, and still
convey a message that was different from theirs. Most important, I sought to say something new that might be useful to
future JA authors.
So I thought about my duties as editor. In that capacity, I
mainly processed manuscripts: I received them, sent them to
reviewers (these activities occurred via snail mail; it was my
successor, Marla Royne, who initiated electronic processing
and correspondence for JA), read and digested reviews, made
decisions regarding the potential publication of manuscripts,
and corresponded with authors regarding my decisions. While
such a job description may seem rather mundane, I never
thought of it that way. What I liked best about being editor, I
often confided to colleagues and friends, was that as I processed manuscripts I learned something about advertising every
day. This thought prompted me to think about my favorite
activity as editor: the opportunities to promote JA at various
conferences, mainly by participating in Meet the Editors sessions, a thought that was also noted by Les in his essay. In promoting JA at these sessions, I felt that I had much good news
to share (our Social Sciences Citation Index impact factor was
on the rise; we had an outstanding and diverse editorial review
board; the articles we published were important and rigorous;
and so on). However, besides emphasizing these points, I
always made sure to note that JA dealt with advertising and

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R. N. LACZNIAK

that it focused on the intellectual development of the advertising discipline. In other words, I tried to emphasize that JA centered on the development and extension of advertising theory.
I suppose that the latter comment was motivated, to a large
extent, by my effort to differentiate the JA brand from that of
the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR). In my mind, JAR
focused more on practical research questions and less on theory. (Table 1 provides a comparison of the missions of JAR
and JA). At the time, I felt that development of theory should
be at the heart of academic pursuits and that theoretical developments need to be used to guide the science of advertising.
In fact, I still believe this to be true.
Given this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that I
decided to use this essay to discuss theory development in
advertising. In this piece I wish to (1) describe theory (more
specifically, advertising theory), (2) briefly summarize an
ongoing debate regarding theory development in aligned disciplines (see Colquitt and Zapata-Phelan 2007; Hambrick 2007;
Hong et al. 2014; Porter, Bareiss, and Holte 1990; Sutton and
Staw 1995), and (3) provide some broad-based guidelines for
emerging scholars in advertising for theory development in
light of the first two points. To those who are relatively new to
the JA readership base, I must confess that the idea of discussing advertising theory is not entirely novel. Indeed, Shelly
Rodgers and Esther Thorson courageously edited a book titled
Advertising Theory in 2012. This book derived in part from a
special session and another preconference session that were
featured at American Academy of Advertising conferences in
2009 and 2010. The books aim was to provide beginning students and seasoned scholars who want greater familiarity with
various areas of advertising, a comprehensive understanding
of how advertising works and how advertising relates to its
environment (Rodgers and Thorson 2012, p. xxi). It contains
myriad readings regarding the predominant theoretical
approaches used in advertising research. Yet as a reader
peruses these masterful pieces, he or she will learn that the

pursuit of theory development is neither easy nor is it accomplished in a simple, single way. As noted, I hope to interject
some thoughts I have on the matter, since (as I hope you will
see later in this essay) some recent scholars in aligned disciplines question the contribution of theoryat least theory as
we have described it in the advertising context.
JA HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: LACZNIAKS VIEWS
OF THE IMPORTANCE OF ADVERTISING THEORY
In my first full-fledged From the Editor column, I
attempted to provide some guidelines to potential contributors
to JA. Among my recommendations was the following
(Laczniak 2003, p. 5):
An acceptable manuscript should make a substantive contribution
to the advertising theory. Therefore, I am looking for papers that
shed light on theory. Of course I do believe that theory-based
papers should have something to say about practice, public policy,
and/or social issues. But, it is my belief that the best way to make
contributions to advertising practice or public policy making is by
building a solid theory. In my opinion, manuscripts can make a substantive contribution to theory in one of many different forms. One
way is by stating a formalized theory in purely conceptual terms.
Another way would be by extending an existing theory in some
meaningful manner. Yet another alternative is testing an existing
theory. Thus, I am open to publishing either conceptual or empirical articles; however, I believe they need to focus on theoretical
development. (emphasis added)

So, right from the very genesis of my editorship, I


attempted to communicate my thought that the JA wasand I
believe it still isthe top theory-based advertising outlet for
academic research.

What Is Advertising Theory?


Faber, Duff, and Nan (2012) describe advertising theory as
the detail and nuance that color in advertising (p. 18). They

TABLE 1
Mission Statements of the Journal of Advertising Research and Journal of Advertising
Journal Name
Journal of Advertising
Research

Journal of Advertising

Abbreviation
JAR

JA

Mission Statement
JAR encourages dialogue between practitioners and academics to expand the
scientific body of knowledge about all facets of marketing and advertising
research and to facilitate translation of that knowledge to support the ARFs
[Advertising Research Foundations] mission of effective business through
research and insights.
JA is the premier academic publication covering significant intellectual
development pertaining to advertising theories and their relationship with
practice. The goal of the journal is to provide a public forum that reflects the
current understanding of advertising as a process of communication, its role
in the changing environment, and the relationships between these and other
components of the advertising business and practice.

INVITED ARTICLE SERIES

note that advertising theory should provide an understanding


of how advertising, via its many elements and attributes, ultimately affects people. Based on this thinking, I believe that
advertising theory should define how and when structural elements of ads (e.g., message sources, ad devices) influence
receivers, knowing that all receivers are not the same and thus
may not respond in a single, similar manner. Such a notion is
consistent with Prestons (2012) view that what is articulated
in an ad is not necessarily what is understood by the ads
audience. According to Preston, it is this very point which
often creates some amount of discord between academic
research in advertising and advertising practitioners because,
in Prestons view, professional copywriters view their writing
skills as strong enough to communicate effectively and without much chance of misinterpretation by receivers.
Having said this, I also recognize that, by its very nature,
advertising is an applied discipline. Nan and Faber (2004) use
the term variable field, which more formally suggests the
advertising discipline is applied and practical and as a result is
constantly evolving as its environment changes. As the contexts of advertising are constantly evolving (e.g., the media climate is constantly changing; it is clearly becoming more
digital; Sundar, Xu, and Dou 2012), research in the area tends
to borrow ideas from more basic disciplines of economics,
psychology, and sociology to form its own theoretical framework. Indeed, Nan and Faber note that variable fields often
borrow theoretical notions from mother disciplines and use
these ideas to formalize thinking which, in turn, is used to
guide research. As a result, theories in applied disciplines need
to balance relevance with rigor out of necessity (a point clearly
emphasized by Preston 2012). Theories must be well thought
out but also deal with issues of relevance to the real world. I
believe such a notion at least partially motivated Rodgers and
Thorson (2012) to develop their book.

BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE THEORY DEVELOPMENT


IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
It is important to note that theorists in some aligned disciplines (e.g., management and information systems) recently
have begun to question the nature and usefulness of theory
development. One specific issue centers on a notion that suggests theories can be dichotomized into a strong-versus weaktheory dyad with the differentiating factor centering on contextualization (see Hong et al. 2014; Porter, Bareiss, and Holte
1990; Whetten, Felin, and King 2009). Specifically, strong
(or universal) theories are thought to describe research generalizations that are context free. Extending this notion to our
discipline, strong theories would contain advertising generalizations that could be made for all receivers, across all media,
for all messages (e.g., exposure to ads will lead receivers to
view brands in a more favorable manner). On the other hand,
weak theories are more contextualizedthat is, they suggest a
generalization should be observed only in a specific context or

431

for a contextualized type of entity (e.g., exposure to ads will


lead receivers to view brands more favorably when the
receivers exposed to the ad are in good moods but not bad
moods). The terms strong and weak are not used by accident;
they are thought to indicate the usefulness of the theory in the
real world (stronger theories apply to more situations). This is
a seemingly important point in that it suggests researchers
should endeavor to build strong (or at least stronger than previously developed) theories.
However, being an advertising scholar (and I hope that I
can include myself in that category), I believe that
weaker theories are perhaps at the heart of what we actually should try to develop. Indeed, Thorson and Rodgers
(2012) and Preston (2012) argue that ads intend to influence
behaviors but note that all ads will not be equally successful in doing so for all consumers. One of the examples that
Thorson and Rodgers (2012) draw on is the notion that ads
affect low-involvement versus high-involvement (involvement relating to the personal relevance of the ad to the
receiver) consumers differently. In other words, the effects
of advertising depend on the receivers involvement levels.
In my opinion, this generalization appears to be largely
contextual (i.e., ad effects are dependent, to a large extent,
on the context of receiver involvement). To provide further
support that contextual theories dominate our domain, I
note that my own contribution with Les Carlson to the
Rodgers and Thorson book attempted to uncover empirical
generalizations from prior work that dealt with the effects
of advertising on children (Laczniak and Carlson 2012). Of
the eight empirical generalizations (EGs) we discussed in
our chapter, only one could be considered to be context
free (EG1: Children are influenced by advertising), while
the other seven are contextualized (e.g., EG2: Childrens
understanding of advertisings persuasive intent increases
with age). In my mind, EG2 is more useful than EG1 in
that it can help advertising practitioners and public policymakers develop an understanding that not all children will
respond to a particular ad in the same way. Childrens
responses to ads will depend on, at least to a certain extent,
their ages.
Figure 1 is a pictorial representation of my views of the
potential usefulness of weaker and stronger theories in differing types of disciplines. For applied disciplines, this depiction
suggests that contextualization in theory development is
important because it avails researchers opportunities to
account for the subtle nuances that often arise, making the
direct application of universal theories to specific phenomenon
difficult (or impossible). Indeed, as theories become contextualized, researchers can better explain the occurrences of areaspecific phenomenon (such as how a low-versus a highinvolvement receiver might respond to a humorous ad). Thus,
in my mind, putting context in (or weakening) theory provides
scholars with greater clarity regarding the phenomenon of
study (i.e., advertising) because it allows the study of nuances.

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R. N. LACZNIAK

 Do not be seduced by strong-theory-only thinking. Its not

FIG. 1. A proposed relationship between relative contribution, theory


strength, and type of discipline.

Moreover, it is my belief that contextual theories will be of use


to practitioners. Such theories are more aligned with problems/
issues that practitioners face in the real world. However, please
note I believe strong theories have their place in the scholarly
world. I do not dispute the notion that more basic disciplines
should strive to develop and use strong theories. As noted by
others, stronger theories are likely to center on big ideas
those that can truly shape a basic discipline. Such theories suggest fundamental rules reside at the heart of a particular (more
basic) discipline.
Perhaps all I am trying to say is I doubt we will ever see an
extremely strong (and context-free) theory of advertising. Not
all ads are the same; their effects will undoubtedly differ
depending on the audience, source, message, media, and so
on. Furthermore, it is my contention that advertising, as a discipline, can be built on weaker theories (if that is what we
want to call them). It is also important to note my graphical
depiction acknowledges that completely weak theories (i.e.,
those that are contextualized to the point where they only
describe the response of one particular person, to one particular ad, in one specific media) are probably not useful in any
discipline. But it is my strong opinion that weaker (or contextualized) theories (as described previously in this essay) are
likely to be of use in advertising. Empirically supported
weaker theories can provide direct guidance to managers in
creating and executing effective ads (and help policymakers
develop effective regulations and/or guidelines). This is
important because, in my mind, it suggests that ad theory can
be of practical use.

ADVERTISING THEORY DEVELOPMENT


RECOMMENDATIONS
Based on my comments, I have developed some thoughts
regarding the development of advertising theory:

that I am trying to tell advertising scholars not to think big.


Rather my recommendation is that when scholars are
attempting to develop advertising-based theory, it is prudent
to think in terms of contextualization. For economists or
physicists, such thinking may seem mundane. But for those
of us who reside in an applied-discipline (variable field)
world such as advertising, it is our duty to think about context (e.g., how differing segments of receivers will react to
different types of advertising messages across varying
modalities). In my opinion, such theories have the best
chance of influencing practice.
 Theories can (and should) be borrowed from other fields and
adapted to advertising. In one particularly insightful article,
Pasadeos, Phelps, and Edison (2008) used network analysis
to determine the theoretical roots of the most-cited advertising articles and found four predominant theoretical bases
in the discipline, three of which come from outside the
advertising field. Not surprisingly, one of the theoretical
bases identified by Pasadeos, Phelps, and Edison (2008) (the
elaboration likelihood model [ELM; Petty, Cacioppo, and
Schumann 1983]), which has its roots in psychology) served
as the theoretical basis for two of the three most-cited
articles that were published during my editorship (see Balasubramanian, Karrh, and Patwardhan 2006; Ko, Cho, and
Roberts 2005). Both of these articles apply ELM to specific
media within advertising (the former to product placements
and the latter to Internet advertising). Interestingly, both
articles extend the ELM to better fit the contexts of their
work. In other words, the basic universal theory was contextualized in both of these advertising articles.
 As discussed, the essence of Prestons article (and indeed, a
great amount of his work over the years) suggests that different types of people will react differently to the same ad
message. Thus, I believe it is theorys role to tell us why different consumers might respond to an ad in a particular
way. Theory should be helpful in allowing advertisers to
develop messages (that are placed within particular media)
that have desired effects on receivers from both an organizational and societal (or public policy) perspective. Simply
put, advertising theory should be both practical and useful.
 Empirical tests of theory are necessary. While theories may
evolve from the collective body of studies, once developed
they need to be tested. Most important, theory needs to be
tested in various contexts to determine the extent to which it
might be generalizable. Just as an example, as noted, Laczniak and Carlson (2012) proposed that advertising affects
children (based on the results of many different studies).
Even this seemingly context-free proposition should be
tested across various types of ads, ad media, and market segments. It is possible that a certain ad message, delivered via
a specific ad medium, will not influence children who are
living in one country (for example) but will influence those
living in a different country. While such tests and

INVITED ARTICLE SERIES

conclusions may be viewed as weakening theory, they


most likely will provide a context to theoretical expectations
that will be more meaningful to both scholars and
practitioners.

CONCLUDING COMMENT
As I reflected on my time as editor of JA, I must admit I got
a bit nostalgic. However, I quickly recalled my zeal for talking
about theory development in advertising. My thoughts continue to be that scholarly work in advertising should be guided
by theory. I am hopeful that, via this essay, current and future
scholars in advertising will be able to add to their understanding of their roles in developing advertising theory. Moreover, I
hope I have also made a case that weaker (contextualized)
theory can be very useful in this realm and that the resulting
work can be both rigorous and practical at the same time.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The author would like to thank current JA editor Shintaro
Okazaki for providing him with the opportunity to share his
views and for his thoughtful comments regarding this article.
In addition, thanks to Les Carlson, Sam DeMarie, Anthony
Townsend, and Kathy Laczniak for providing useful feedback
on earlier drafts of this article.

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