Does advertising only work via driving intentions and preference ? No!

Apart from a very small amount of direct response advertising, advertising works (to generate sales) through memories.  This is an uncontroversial statement, yet it’s common for marketers and academics to forget the essential role of memory and instead think advertising works largely through persuasive, rational or emotional, arguments that shift brand evaluations.

The dominant way that advertising works is by refreshing, and occasionally building, memory structures that improve the chance of the brand being recalled and/or noticed in buying situations and hence bought.  Memory structures such as what the brand does, what it looks like, where it’s available, when it’s consumed, where it is consumed, by who, with whom and so on.  Associations with cues that can bring the brand to mind.

Some advertising creates a purchase intention, gaining a reaction like “I should buy that” or “that’s interesting, I must check that out”.  It’s commonly assumed that such advertising must be more sales effective, but this does not follow.  Memory structures, even if they don’t result in intentions, still cause sales – decades of research shows that most sales typically come from people who had not formed an intention (Juster, 1960).  One reason is that intentions are memories too, and subject to faulty recall, so even firm intentions are weakly motivational.

A similar point can be made about brand preference or attitude.  Some advertising, much of it being quite similar or identical in style to intention forming advertising, generates a reaction like “that’s good” or “that’s the brand for me”.  Again, it is commonly assumed that such advertising must be more sales effective.  But again such attitudes are usually weakly motivational, because they are often not recalled in buying situations.

In fact there is typically only around a 50% chance that a person will state an attitude about a brand twice in two surveys (Dall’Olmo Riley, 1997; Sharp, 2002) – sometimes they recall their attitude, sometimes they don’t.  Either that or they are rather unsure of their attitude (it’s not like brand attitudes are very important).  Of course many of our intentions are rather vague and weak, e.g. “One day I must start eating more healthy foods and getting more exercise”.  We like a good many rival brands, including some we haven’t heard of yet, and we attitudinally reject very few of the many available options.

So it is quite misplaced to conclude that advertising that affects intentions or attitude works better than advertising that simply refreshes and/or builds memories.  This fact undermines much academic advertising research that derived rules about effectiveness by examining the effect of advertising exposure on stated intentions.  Similarly, advertising pre-tests (copy tests) that use intentions or intention shift are biased towards particular types of advertising content, and very often reach incorrect conclusions about the sales effectiveness of particular commercials.

Many firms are still trapped in the intentions/preference paradigm.  They brief their agencies and evaluate their advertising in line with this mental model.  As a consequence they produce unoriginal advertising filled with persuasive arguments (often about trivial benefits) that are rejected or fail to engage consumers.  They often produce advertising that fails miserably to refresh or build appropriate mental structures – because management attention is on the selling message. They take their ‘eye off the ball’ failing to consistently communicate the distinctive aspects of the brand.  Consequently many firms produce campaign after campaign where each looks and feels different – as if each were for a different brand.

Somewhat ironically, firms operating to this model of how advertising works will sometimes produce what they call “image advertising” or “awareness advertising” yet they do not expect this to produce sales.  Why on earth anyone should spend money on advertising that isn’t expected to deliver a behavioural response is beyond me.

In summary, advertising largely drives sales by refreshing memory structures.  Occasionally it works to (slowly) build memory structures.  Occasionally it works by also creating a purchase intention or preference.
So marketers need to understand the memory structures that have already been built for their brand.  They need to use these, and ensure their advertising refreshes these structures.  Then they need to research what other memory structures might be useful to the brand, and then work to build these.

Over decades leading brands have done stellar jobs at building relevant memory structures.  Coke is a great example, this was once a brand that sold in drug stores it was something associated with drug store visits in Summer by teenagers.  Today Coke is associated with a host of memories…Coke and the beach…Coke and nightclubs…Coke and pizza…Coke at parties…Coke…Coke red…Coke swirl… and so on.  These memories make it more likely that Coke will come to mind, they make it easier to notice, and they make is easier to process Coke advertising.

In Summary, advertising largely generates sales by refreshing memory structures.  Occasionally it works by (usually slowly) building memory structures.  Occasionally it works by also creating a purchase intention or preference.  The way you commision, judge and research your advertising should reflect this.


Juster, F. Thomas (1960), “Prediction and Consumer Buying Intentions,” American Economic Review, 50, 604 -22.

Ehrenberg-Bass Institute report 3 “Advertising and Brand Attitudes“.

Ehrenberg-Bass Institute report 13 “Brand Advertising as Creative Publicity“.

Sharp, Anne (2002), “Searching for boundary conditions for an empirical generalisation concerning the temporal stability of individual’s perceptual responses,” Doctor of Philosophy, University of South Australia.


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