The Historical Evolution of Advertising Consumer Behavior Research

ABSTRACT - Interest in consumer behavior research has led to an increase in behaviorally oriented advertising research. At the same time, more applied research in the former area is also evident. The number of advertising-consumer behavior research articles appearing in the major journals of these fields has increased during the past two and one-half decades. The trends of such research are reviewed and future research areas are presented.


Michael A. Belch and George E. Belch (1985) ,"The Historical Evolution of Advertising Consumer Behavior Research", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 72-75.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 72-75


Michael A. Belch, San Diego State University

George E. Belch, San Diego State University


Interest in consumer behavior research has led to an increase in behaviorally oriented advertising research. At the same time, more applied research in the former area is also evident. The number of advertising-consumer behavior research articles appearing in the major journals of these fields has increased during the past two and one-half decades. The trends of such research are reviewed and future research areas are presented.


As the consumer behavior and marketing fields have gone through changes in respect to the schools of thought influencing the disciplines, so too has the advertising domain. The results of these changes in influence affect the emphasis of the research conducted in the area, which, in turn, alters the thinking of those employed in the practice of advertising. The purpose of this paper is to review the trends that have evolved through the past two decades of advertising research, correlate these trends with those of consumer behavior research in general, and suggest possible areas of future research.

The first question that might come to mind is that of, why study historical trends? What is to be gained by looking back? While a variety of reasons for conducting such a review can be offered, basically three major reasons can be cited:

1. To understand the framework of modern-day advertising practice and research, it is necessary to examine the foundation from whence this framework developed. Advertising practitioners and researchers do not operate in isolation. The research is often the result of need to solve a particular problem of the practitioner, to fill in gaps in current theories, and/or to attempt to advance the understanding of advertising in general so as to improve the process. In turn, the practitioner (implementer) utilizes research in formulating advertising plans more effectively, promoting her/his clients' products and services and remaining current in the "goings-on" of the discipline.

2. To further understanding of the progress being made in the discipline. As research advances the discipline, those involved in advertising need to be kept aware of the progress being made in the area. Not only does this awareness advance their own capabilities, but it provides a perspective for realizing that the state-of-the-art of advertising is a dynamic one.

3. To predict future trends. The obvious question as to where advertising goes from here can be answered more easily by realizing where the discipline has been. Again , this allows for better planning capabilities by the researcher and practitioner alike. Knowing where one is going makes the path to getting there a much more expeditious one.

In sum, the better we understand the evolution of advertising thought--and that of related disciplines--the more effective we will be in advancing the state-of-the-art. There may be no better indicator of the thinking of a discipline than the research conducted therein. Thus, the relevance and usefulness of such a report is established.


While it would be useful to examine the evolution of all areas of research in the advertising domain, it is beyond the scope of this project to assume such an undertaking. Given the nature of this conference , and the need to limit the investigation , this paper will focus on the evolution of consumer behavior oriented research conducted in the advertising discipline. Thus , while making mention of the trends in other areas (for example, measures of advertising effectiveness, measurement and other related methods, etc.), primary attention will be given to the role of the behavioral sciences research over the past two decades.

Sources Reviewed

As advertising--like consumer behavior--has become more interdisciplinary, advertising research publications have surfaced in a variety of journals and/or periodicals. The Journal of Applied Psychology, The Journal of Communications, and The Journal of Consumer Affairs, to name just a few, have published advertising research related articles in the the time period under consideration. The bulk of the behaviorally oriented consumer research, however, has appeared in a smaller subset of publications. With apologies to those not included, this review must limit itself, and thus focuses on the following publications as its sources:

The Journal of Advertising (JA), 1972-1985

The Journal of Advertising Research (JAR)1960-1985

The Journal of Consumer Research (JCR) 1974-1985

The Journal of Marketing (JM) 1960-1985

The Journal of Marketing Research (JMR) 1964-1985

Advances in Consumer Research (ACR)

Proceedings, Assoc.for Consumer Research 1970-1985

The Review Process

Each of the articles in each of the publications previously noted was reviewed, either by reviewing the abstract or the article itself. As the article was read it was categorized. As the review process progressed, the number of categories increased to accommodate those articles that did not clearly fit into a previously established classification. Upon completion of the review process, a subjective clustering was undertaken to reduce the categories from 40 initial groups to 14 final categories. Articles that had a dual emphasis (for example, "Brand Preferences of Chicago Blacks") were classified into two categories. In this example, the article would be classified as research on consumer preferences and subcultural research. The topical categories derived and a brief description of subjects included are presented in Table 1.

For those articles unrelated to consumer behavior research, the process was then complete. The articles relevant to this paper were subsequently re-reviewed and reported upon herein.


The predominance of advertising consumer behavior related research increased in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As marketing itself moved into the area of consumer behavior research with the establishment of the Association for Consumer Research and that organization' s conference proceedings (Advances in Consumer Research) in 1970, and later (1974) The Journal of Consumer Research, much of this empirical work involved the effects of advertising. And, of course, advertisers themselves began to focus their attentions on consumer behaviors. The orientations of the disciplines themselves went through changes in the past two-and-one-half decades.



The 1960s

As the consumer behavior research focus moved from the psychoanalytic orientation, which prevailed in the 1950s (see Helgeson et al., 1984) , into learning and cognitive-based theories in the 1960s, advertising research naturally followed. While measures of advertising effectiveness and methodological oriented studies dominated the field, consumer behavior oriented studies on attitudes, preferences, perceptions, behavioral measures, and personality factors began to appear. While the focus was primarily on internal factors (40 of the 53 consumer research studies), external influences such as societal effects, socioeconomic and demographic factors, and the diffusion process were also evident. As was the case in marketing in general, attitude, perception, and preference research constituted the major efforts. The majority of these consumer research studies were reported on in The Journal of Advertising Research and, to a much lesser degree, in The Journal of Marketing Research. The Journal of Marketing had only a few advertising consumer research articles, while the other journals under review in this paper were not yet in existence.

The 1970s

Either as a result of--or causing--the increased research in both advertising and consumer behavior, three new outlets--The Journal of Advertising, Advances in Consumer Research, and The Journal of Consumer Research- appeared in the 1970s. In consumer behavior in general, research on attitudes, motivations, perceptions, and preferences, as well as external factors, continued, while new areas also began to receive attention. Physiological studies, information processing, consumer involvement, and life style factors received increased attention. External influences such as cultural effects, situational factors, and persuasion also were researched and reported upon more.

In the advertising domain, ad effectiveness measures and methodologies still remained the primary focus of The Journal of Advertising Research, though a broader variety of topics was beginning to appear, many involving advertising strategies. While attitude research was still the major area of investigation, an equal number of studies focusing on demographic, socioeconomic, and/or other external factors was evident. Perceptions and behaviors continued to be researched, while studies or "think-piece" articles of models of communication also received more attention. Perhaps the most noteworthy change in The Journal of Advertising Research during this period was the increase in the number of articles designed to explore the effects of various advertising strategies (i.e., message and media factors) on the consumer.

The newest advertising journal, The Journal of Advertising, originated in 1972. While somewhat less methods-oriented than The Journal of Advertising Research, this new entry also covered a variety of advertising-related topics. In respect to consumer research, attitudes were likewise the primary focus of attention, though a number of articles involving information processing appeared. A scattering of other internal and external factors-oriented research also evolved in this journal.

Both The Journal of Marketing and The Journal of Marketing Research continued to increase the number of consumer behavior /advertising research articles reported therein in the 1970s, though no one particular topic area dominated either. Attitude-related research appeared to be more prevalent in The Journal of Marketing Research, while external influences were more common in The Journal of Marketing.

The specifically consumer research oriented media (Advances in Consumer Research, The Journal of Consumer Research), as to be expected, covered a variety of consumer behavior topics. The most frequently appearing topics in Advances in Consumer Research relating to advertising research -involved attitudes and effects on communication. External factors such as demographics, social values, etc., were also common. Interestingly, The Journal of Consumer Research was not dominated by attitude research during this period, but rather--as its interdisciplinary positioning entails--presented a variety of topics, the most common being external influences and effects of advertising on various communications process variables .

In summary, the 1970s advertising-consumer behavior research was still dominated by attitude-related topics. However, during this period more cognitive-oriented research, for example, information processing, attribution, and cognitive response theories and more communications effects (source and message factors), were beginning to appear in the literature.

The 1980s

Three major trends appear to be occurring in the 1980s. First, consumer research studies are becoming increasingly more common in the advertising research literature. Secondly, the amount of this research with attitudes as the primary focus of attention is decreasing. A final, though seemingly less obvious trend, also seems evident-that of more positioning by the journals. While the 1970s saw advertising and consumer behavior research appearing in all of the journals reviewed here, the 1980s reflect more specific orientations. The Journal of Marketing Research, as an example, has published very few articles in this domain. The Journal of Marketing has published a few more than The Journal of Marketing Research, but the trend appears to be away from this area. At the same time, the Journal of Advertising Research has continued to publish consumer behavior oriented research, particulary on the effects of various strategies and external influences, while continuing to report on attitude research.

The emphasis in Advances in Consumer Research and The Journal of Consumer Research likewise has shifted . The Journal of Consumer Research has increased the number of advertising research articles presented therein, primarily in the areas of cognitive response, information processing, and behavioral research. Advances in Consumer Research, while continuing to cover a broad range of topics in line with The Journal of Consumer Research, has presented numerous articles devoted to the various effects of communications For example, in Advances in Consumer Research in the 1980s, an equal number of attitude-oriented studies appeared as in the 1970s, while studies designed to measure communications effects (attention, comprehension, source effects, media effects, etc.) increased seven-fold.

In summary, advertising consumer behavior research in the 1980s has continued to explore topics of the past-for example, attitude, perceptions, etc. At the same time, however, a more applied orientation seems to be evolving. Research seems to be moving toward studies designed to measure the effects of various advertising factors-for example, message, source, media--in the communications process. Further, the dependent variables under consideration have become more specific, i.e., cognitive responses, comprehension, recall, etc., than in previous years.


As we have seen that those topics currently under investigation in the consumer behavior literature as a whole tend to parallel those in the advertising consumer behavior literature (or vice versa?) , it is seemingly safe to assume- that this trend will continue into the future. While no one obviously can predict where advertising research will go, the following is suggested as to where such research may go.

Theoretical Bases

The recent increase in research in the areas of cognitive response and information processing has opened a number of avenues for future research consideration. While both of these areas have received attention in the consumer behavior literature, more specific applications to advertising are likely to be forthcoming.

There also seems to be a renewed interest in the area of learning theory. Recent articles in the consumer behavior journals (for example, McSweeney and Bierly, 1984) are explaining consumer behaviors from the stimulus-response perspective that originated in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, then later returned in the mid- to late 1970s. Such behavioral learning theories are likely to be utilized to examine more closely the effects of advertising.

Other areas of psychological research that are likely to be continued and/or increased are those studies dealing with involvement, physiological effects ( particularly brain-wave research as opposed to EDR/GSR, etc.), and the effects of external influences. In respect to the last of these, the changing demographics and lifestyles of American society are resulting in dramatic changes in behaviors. Naturally, such changes do not exclude advertising.

Applied Emphasis

As noted, advertising-consumer behavior research has become much more applied in the 1970s and 1980s. The specific effects of message and source factors, deceptive advertising, and other communication variables are likely to receive increased attention by researchers. Indeed, the March 1985 issue of The Journal of Consumer

Research was a special issue dedicated to "The Effects of Communication on Consumers." As advertisers become to be held more accountable--a growing trend in the industry-even more emphasis on the psychological effects of advertising is likely.

International Scope

The world is certainly getting smaller. Technological changes have increased the speed with which communications travel to the degree that happenings anywhere on earth are immediately known throughout the world. World travel is increasing. Because of these and other factors, there will be an increased emphasis on understanding various cultures. Advertising in and to these countries will lead to more cross-cultural research, more international exchanges of ideas, and a need to understand communication and buying processes of other lands. This conference is an excellent example of things to come.

Broader Thinking

Perhaps it is just the preference of this author, but future research must be more diverse. In the past, consumer-advertiser researchers have tended to focus their attention in specific areas-for example, the attitude research of the 1960s and 1970s. This may be somewhat of a desire to publish and the thought that mainstream research has a better chance of acceptance. Or, it may be a function of the learning environment in which we "teach what we know," which leads to systematic thinking. Future research needs to be less mainstream and more thought-provoking,. even controversial. Rapidly progressing technologies are changing the industries and our lives. The effects of these should be investigated. Research in genetics has made tremendous advances due in part to the controversies sparked in the area. Some of this research has explored consumer behaviors (of identical twins) and should be of interest to our field. A variety of areas remain to be explored. Hopefully, we will find them worth considering.


Helgeson, James G., Kluge, E. Alan, Mager, John, and Cheri Taylor (1984), "Trends in Consumer Behavior Literature: A Content Analysis," Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (4), 449-454.

Larson, Carl M., and Hugh G. Wales (1973), "Brand Preferences of Chicago Blacks," The Journal of Advertising Research, 4, 15-21.

McSweeney, Frances K., and Calvin Bierley (1984), "Recent Developments in Classical Conditioning," Journal of Consumer Research, 11 (2), 619-631.



Michael A. Belch, San Diego State University
George E. Belch, San Diego State University


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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