Attachment Theory

The Attachment Theory was originated in 1958 by John Bowlby and was further elaborated by Mary Ainsworth during the 70s. The theory advocates that the relationship between a child and his or her primary caregiver in the first years of life has a major impact on the child's lifelong development (Bowlby 1973; Fraley et al. 2011). Moreover, it interferes with how humans perceive and anticipate relationships, as well as how they behave in social situations (Ainsworth et al. 1978).

According to Bowlby, attachment is an all-or-nothing process developed in the first years of life. It defines the unique relationship between an infant and his or her primary caregiver, who is used as a secure base when exploring new surroundings (Ainsworth & Bell 1969; Ainsworth & Bell 1981; Ainsworth, 1978; Bretherton, 1992). Nevertheless, further research carried out by Ainsworth (1978) identified differences in attachment styles, defined by the quality of the child-primary caregiver relationship, emphasizing the importance of the appropriateness of the adult's response. These were the result of The Strange Situation experiment (Ainsworth & Wittig, 1969).

The observation was based on the child's attitude toward the mother in eight different exposures, concluding three types of attachment. On the one hand, when the bond between the secure base and the infant is constructed on trust and love, it is considered a secure attachment. As adults, they have no problem establishing long-term relationships, frequently exhibiting openness when discussing their feelings and thoughts with others. On the contrary, anxious-ambivalent attachment is approached when children are unsure whether their caregivers will be accessible when needed. In adulthood, they become dependent, and they frequently feel neglected by others. Moreover, avoidant attachment is identified when children avoid being with their caregiver and are not upset when they are separated. In the future, they hold back from close connections, preferring to rely on themselves (Cassidy, 1994). Apart from these, some years later, disorganized attachment was recognized by Main and Solomon (1990). The latter defines children acting in contradictory behaviors, frequently exhibiting extreme anger and aggression. In adulthood, they feel they do not deserve love and have a hard time controlling their emotions.

Attachment theory has several applications in advertising, especially in recent decades in which insecurity in society has increased (Vail et al., 1999), making brands play a major role as an attachment figure (Rindfleisch et al., 2009).

Attachment style can predict people's attitudes towards a brand, its products, and its advertisements. According to Mende and Bolton (2011), low attachment anxiety and low attachment avoidance lead to higher levels of satisfaction, trust, and affective commitment towards a brand. Indeed, it was shown that people with secure attachment and/or high dependence on their attachment figure, are more likely to be attached to a brand, and therefore, more likely to trust and be loyal to it (Bidmon, 2016). However, for this to happen, the brand must be responsive and attentive, simulating a traditional secure attachment figure. Consequently, applying this line of reasoning to advertising, companies should focus their marketing and advertising campaigns on content that generates positive emotional links for customers to feel connected to it.

Furthermore, the study showed that insecure attachment styles are more likely to be willing to be part of a brand community. Users of this platform have a sense of "we-ness", having a great feeling of connection not only to the brand, but also to one another (Bender, 1978). Thus, one of the most powerful implications of the theory for advertising is the segmentation of the market into secure-independent consumers and insecure-dependent consumers. For this purpose, one study concluded that, in general, higher-income and married individuals are more likely to have a secure attachment style, while youngsters, lower-income and single individuals are more likely to be included in an anxious attachment style (David, 2016). The more confident and dependent an individual is, the more chances to create brand attachment, and the more important emotional advertising becomes. Therefore, if the brand is targeting students, it should consider creating a brand community, while if it is targeting family parents, the company should consider creating campaigns with an emotional link.

Apart from these, the attachment theory has a strong relationship with consensus statements. These are assertions that demonstrate agreement produced by consent among all members of a group or among several groups. In one study conducted by David (2016), it was concluded that securely attached people prefer more consensually advertised products, thinking that they suit better their needs, in contradiction to what people with insecure attachment claimed. As a result, using the segmentation previously mentioned, brands can adjust their advertisements by putting consensus statements or not according to the target audience. For instance, if the target group is high net-worth individuals, the company may include a consensus message to increase the effectiveness of its advertisement.

Finally, it is important to note that attachment styles have been framed to be situational (David, 2016). This means that a person with one type of natural attachment may present another style depending on the situation at the given moment. With this, brands can induce the attachment style they are looking for to make their campaign a success. For example, the company may wish to reach both, old and young people. Thus, it can show an image of two individuals happily together at the beginning of the advertisement, fostering attachment security. Subsequently, the product with a consensus statement should be displayed, increasing the effectiveness of the commercial.


Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1978). The bowlby-ainsworth attachment theory. Behavioral and brain sciences, 1(3), 436–438.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bell, S. M. (1969). Some contemporary patterns of mother–infant interaction in the feeding situation. In A. Ambrose (ed.) Stimulation in Early Infancy (pp. 133–70). London, UK: Academic Press.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. N. (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Wittig, B. A. (1969). Attachment and exploratory behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. In B. M. Foss (Ed.), Determinants of infant behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 111-136). London, UK: Methuen.

Bender, T. (1978). Community and social change in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759–775.

Bidmon, S. (2017). How does attachment style influence the brand attachment–brand trust and brand loyalty chain in adolescents?. International Journal of Advertising, 36(1), 164–189.

Bowlby (1973). Separation: Anxiety and Anger. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cassidy, J. (1994). Emotion regulation: Influences of attachment relationships. Monographs of the society for research in child development, 59(2-3), 228–249.

David, M. E. (2016). The role of attachment style in shaping consumer preferences for products shown in advertisements that depict consensus claims. Journal of Advertising, 45(2), 227–243.

Fraley, R. C., Vicary, A. M., Brumbaugh, C. C., & Roisman, G. I. (2011). Patterns of stability in adult attachment: an empirical test of two models of continuity and change. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(5), 974–992.

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. In M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti & E.M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the Preschool Years (pp. 121–160). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mende, M., & Bolton, R. N. (2011). Why attachment security matters: How customers' attachment styles influence their relationships with service firms and service employees. Journal of Service Research, 14(3), 285–301.

Rindfleisch, A., Burroughs, J. E., & Wong, N. (2009). The safety of objects: Materialism, existential insecurity, and brand connection. Journal of consumer research, 36(1), 1–16.

Vail, J., Wheelock, J., & Hill, M. J. (1999). Insecure times: Living with insecurity in contemporary society. London, UK: Routledge.