Jan-Henning Raff: Advertising and Obstruction

Classic advertising has been and still is conceived by hierarchy of effects models (Barry 1987). Well-known is “AIDA”, an acronym that stands for attention, interest, desire, and action. Ideally a possible customer would undergo these hierarchical stages ending with the action of buying. The first, attention, is seen as a cognitive stage i.e. mental processing is taking place here (cf. Barry 1987: 271–273). To capture attention several “tactics” are proposed: color, motion, uniqueness, loudness – measures designers are experts for (cf. Campbell, Mattison Thompson, Grimm & Robson 2017: 415). But where and how are these attention-getting tactics applied? Only few authors acknowledge that before attention there has to be exposure to the advertising within a (media) vehicle, for example in this “expanded association model”:

Distribution → Vehicle Exposure → Ad Exposure → Ad Awareness → Ad Elements Awareness → … (Preston & Thorson 1984: 60)

Here, advertising is not an independent attention-getting medium, it is indeed dependent on a “vehicle”. Still, research has seen advertising as a form of communication thereby fading out its specific characteristics (cf. Nan & Faber 2004). Two specificities, according to Nan and Faber are repetition – the fact that the same advertising is encountered several times – and clutter, which is the effect of multiple competing advertisements (2004: 17–22). Repetition and clutter are effects of distribution and vehicle exposure rather than of the advertising itself.

Critical awareness of these aspects of advertising is relatively recent since media consumers are able to actively avoid it. When people began “zapping” tv channels with advertising, researchers had to recognize that “exposure and attention are radically different from the comparatively passive nature of the old days when, stereotypically, viewers sat in front of their televisions and watched whatever paraded before their eyes. While nonviewing behaviors such as talking, reading, or leaving the room did exist even then …, zipping and zapping have greatly amplified the extent to which advertising viewing can be, and is, avoided.” (Olney, Holbrook & Batra 1991: 440). Only then researchers turned to the actual behavior of people exposed to advertising. They found that advertising is avoided when it is seen as “search hindrance” in magazines/newspapers and as “disruption” in tv and radio programs (Speck & Elliot 1997: 72). With hindrance and disruption is assumed a prior course of action. Fang, Singh and Ahluwalia concede that “the majority of ad exposure occurs under incidental conditions—where the audiences’ attention is focused else where—such as reading a magazine or browsing a Web page …” (2007: 97). That means, advertising is not deliberately searched for but is interfering with an existing activity: “By interfering with the goals of consumers advertising effectively limits the number of actions that consumers can take to attain their goals.” (Edwards, Li & Lee 2002: 84–85) This defines advertising as an obstacle. It has to get in the way of an already existing activity. Before the above mentioned attention-getting tactics come to full effect, advertising somehow has to obstruct this activity. It is noted that the level of perceived obstruction depends on the “level of cognitive intensity with which viewers pursue their goals. When viewers are focused, they perceive interruptions as more severe than when they are not focused.” (Edwards, Li & Lee 2002: 92)

The obstruction can only take place in a medium that is offering the means for a goal directed action. Advertising’s obstructive quality can only work in such an environment, it needs a “vehicle”. Tim Wu has shown that advertising coevolved with media, a striking example being the “invention of Prime time”, that offered a collective – then – hearing experience that could be interrupted by advertising (2016: 94). Today, online media offer the environment to build up obstructions. Advertising researchers by now seem to be reluctant to this, because “the Internet is an environment that provides a stronger sense of control and freedom than an offline setting, causing consumers to be in a goal-directed state when using it.” (Campbell et al. 2017: 412) This, by the way may be the reason for the popularity of “ad blockers”, software that hides advertising in internet browsers (cf. An 2016). Research on “pre-roll ads” (advertising shown before a chosen video), is conscious of the obstruction of the viewing activity and speculates about ways to “divert viewers from the irritation caused by a pre-roll ad” (Campbell et al. 2017: 412). Once the obstruction is encountered it can’t be undone, so all effort is put into confusing the viewer to forget about it – in the actual advertising. One way would be to “increase cognitive load” in the viewer at the very moment of ad exposure so that the feeling of obstruction fades in the background (Campbell et al. 2017: 414). It is hoped for that obstruction can be undone. That means, research still is not embracing the obstructive quality of advertising; that advertising is first and foremost the design of obstructions in a medium.


An, M. (2016). Why People Block Ads (And What It Means for Marketers and Advertisers). Retrieved from https://research.hubspot.com/reports/why-people-block-ads-and-what-it-means-for-marketers-and-advertisers (31.10.2017).

Barry, T. E. (1987). The Development of the Hierarchy of Effects: An Historical Perspective. Current Issues & Research in Advertising, 10(2), 251–295.

Campbell, C., Mattison Thompson, F., Grimm, P. E., & Robson, K. (2017). Understanding Why Consumers Don’t Skip Pre-Roll Video Ads. Journal of Advertising, 46(3), 411–423.

Edwards, S. M., Li, H., & Lee, J.-H. (2002). Forced Exposure and Psychological Reactance: Antecedents and Consequences of the Perceived Intrusiveness of Pop-Up Ads. Journal of Advertising, 31(3), 83–95.

Fang, X., Singh, S., & Ahluwalia, R. (2007). An Examination of Different Explanations for the Mere Exposure Effect. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(1), 97–103.

Nan, X., & Faber, R. J. (2004). Advertising Theory: Reconceptualizing the Building Blocks. Marketing Theory, 4(1), 7–30.

Olney, T. J., Holbrook, M. B., & Batra, R. (1991). Consumer Responses to Advertising: The Effects of Ad Content, Emotions, and Attitude toward the Ad on Viewing Time. Journal of Consumer Research, 17(4).

Preston, I. L., & Thorson, E. (1984). The Expanded Association Model: Keeping the Hierarchy Concept Alive. Journal Of Advertising Research, 24(1), 59–65.

Speck, P. S., & Elliott, M. T. (1997). Predictors of Advertising Avoidance in Print and Broadcast Media. Journal of Advertising, 26(3), 61–76.

Wu, T. (2016). The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jan-Henning Raff
is a professor for graphic design at HMKW University of Applied Sciences in Berlin (Germany). His research focuses on use aspects in graphic design. A forthcoming publication is about “Theories to Understand Graphic Design in Use: The Example of Posters” in The Graphic Design Reader edited by Teal Triggs and Leslie Atzmon. Furthermore, he develops research methodologies for visual communication