Johan Östlund: Three theories about how commercials work

Within a new column on MediaMarketing portal, Johan Östlund, Group CEO at McCann's agencies in Sweden, wrote about the Three Theories About how the Commercials Work.


”It is just a theory, so it doesn’t really work in practice“. How many times has one heard something like that? This quote has always astounded me.

The truth is that there is actually nothing more practical than a good theory.

When people work in a practical way on anything related to macroeconomics and consumer goods marketing, all points of view and recommendations tend to create some sort of theory. It is inevitable.

The problem is that many people cannot really tell which theory or knowledge platform they base their recommendations on (it is perhaps observed as common sense?). Or they know which theory they take as their starting point, but at the same time they don’t realize that it may be insufficiently corroborated and thus unsuitable to be an appropriate base. Or they don’t know that there are two opposed theories which both have their strengths and weaknesses and that one should be familiar with both.

A good theory is a corroborated one. One that has been tested time and time again. Always challenged, developed, challenged and developed all over again etc. Always by thorough methods and through practical experience which thereby gets incorporated to provide a better knowledge platform. A sharp contrast to an appealingly and modernly wrapped nonsense, in other words - without substance.

My ambition with this column is to raise awareness on this contemporary phenomenon because I feel that appealingly and modernly wrapped nonsense seems to get more and more space. The amusing provocateur Bob Hoffman speaks about it, among other things, in a very stimulative manner (even though in essence it is depressing since we are knee-deep in nonsense) in his performance called The Golden Age of Bullshit.

In our field, we have this responsibility to lower the threshold for nonsense. And to maintain a high level of comprehensive knowledge on the whole time.

An event that has reshaped me for good happened almost exactly 18 years ago: randomly browsing (I was trying to find any possible excuse not to study, something which I of course had to do) through an issue of International Journal of Advertising from 1999, I came across an article called “The Emperor’s old clothes: a rejoinder” by Andrew Ehrenberg.

I remember that I was reading his rebuttal of an article written before by Roderick White called “What can advertising really do for brands and had to put it away. What he said tickled and moved me greatly. I’ve never heard of that guy, Andrew Ehrenberg (everyone who today refers to Byron Sharp and his “How Brands Grow” hopefully knows that Sharp’s research is based on the work of the nowadays abandoned Ehrenberg). Ehrenberg led a convincing scientific discussion supporting a theory that a commercial doesn’t work in the way that the AIDA-model (Attention Interest Desire Action) claims.


I believed, in my foolishness, that the AIDA-model wasn’t a theory but the truth. And suddenly it was thoroughly challenged. I felt as if I was losing the ground beneath my feet. It took a while before I dared to open that journal again and above all open up to the idea that what I believed was true maybe wasn’t.

What I stumbled upon was a debate which had been making its rounds in academic circles for a long time, aiming at establishing which explanatory model about how commercials work should prevail. The area is extremely important for practitioners since the dominant model dictates all - from the production to the evaluation of a commercial.

And so, 18 years later, I can conclude that many marketers are on the one hand unblissfully ignorant that there is a debate on explanatory models at all, and on the other - many still work relying on the AIDA-model as a base, since that is the only one they know. However, this type of hierarchical decision-making models (there are several with different names, but they all rely on the same assumption about how people process information sequentially following predetermined and identifiable steps) developed more than a hundred years ago. These models were partly built on assumptions and partly on bases which do not necessarily correspond with how people actually make decisions - relying on what we know today about people and their decision-making processes.

What we can conclude instead is that there are three theories (which, I dare claim are complementary) about how commercials work - stating that anyone who comes into contact with commercial content has to have some knowledge about it - which is best explained in the brilliant article “Persuasion, pride and prejudice: how ads work” by Tim Ambler in International Journal of Advertising.

Instead of posting a text about the competing theories in this first column of mine and thus oversimplifying it for you my dear colleagues - I’d rather invite you all to get your hands on that brilliant article, read all of it and discuss it with your colleagues, consultants and clients.

As a best-case scenario we will all help develop that knowledge platform a bit more and make it both deeper and wider. And we’d do it by joining forces and pooling our knowledge and push our profession forward.

I am looking forward to coming back with new notes on good theories, knowledge platforms and how we should all be on the lookout for nonsense - regardless of how beautifully wrapped it might appear.

The original publication can be found at: