Esther Thorson Ph.D.


Professor Thorson joined the College of Communication Arts faculty at MSU in fall, 2016. Prior, she was Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, and Research Director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.  Thorson holds the Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Minnesota, and attended undergraduate school at Macalester College.

Thorson’s career has combined quantitative research and theory with extensive applied research with advertising, television, and newspaper companies.  Early in her career she served as a research consultant for advertising agencies including Ogilvy and Mather, Tatham, Laird & Kudner, and DDB Needham. While at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Thorson was the media commentator for Wisconsin Public Television's “Weekend Show.”  She has been actively involved in a number of alcohol messaging issues including banning alcohol billboards, and analysis and critique of alcohol advertising that appeals to youth.  This work was academic, but included significant activism, as for example, serving expert witness roles in well-known court cases concerning advertising regulation.

Mid-career, Thorson’s work began to include as much news processing as advertising.  She collaborated on a number of projects with the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and eventually began partnering with U.S. metropolitan newspapers focusing on audience development and newspaper management and economics.  She worked for many years on research with Morris newspapers including the Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville, as well as with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star, Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the Seattle Times, among others.

Thorson has published more than 160 journal articles and chapters, and authored or edited 14 books.  She is widely cited, indeed one of the most cited scholars in advertising.  Her theory work with Shelly Rodgers (2000, 2017) on the “interactive advertising model” is one of the most cited theory articles in advertising.  She was one of the first to explore “interactive advertising” (book with David Schumann, 1999), and then “digital advertising” (book with Shelly Rodgers, 2017, see review in Luang, 2017).  A long-time member of the American Academy of Advertising, Thorson won the organization’s Outstanding Contribution to Research Award, and is one of only two female Fellows of AAA.  Three of Thorson’s doctoral advisees have won the AAA Best Dissertation Proposal Award.

Thorson has also long been a member of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and is one of only two members to have won both the Eleanor Blum Distinguished Service to Research Award, and the organization’s highest research award, the Paul J. Deutschmann Award for Excellence in Research.  In 2018, Thorson was made a Fellow of the International Communication Association.

Thorson has participated in more than $3 million in external funding projects.  Funding was provided by a wide variety of organizations, including the Ford Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Panhellenic-National Intercollegiate Conference, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Missouri Department of Homeland Security, and many others.  From 1994-2014, Thorson managed the Center for Advanced Social Research (CASR), a research center housed in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. During that time, CASR grew from an operation of about $100,000 per year to approximately $500,000 per year.  Thorson also served as Research Director for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute for eight years (2008-2016).  The Institute executed approximately $850,000 per year in applied research.

In the last few years, Thorson has begun weaving together fundamental theory about how people process news and how they cope with advertising.  She is currently articulating an evolutionary perspective to help understand the processes and environments that motivate people to approach and avoid news and advertising.  Importantly this approach allows use of research done before the digital revolution to transition to usefulness for understanding news and advertising in their new guises on the internet.  Thorson is also working on news consumption patterns and fake news and fact-checking efforts; several projects exploring youth political socialization, and how news stories about controversial and politicized subjects (e.g., global warming, vaccination importance) can be rewritten in ways that reduce the wholesale rejection of them by those who tend to reject fact-based information when it is inconsistent with their world views.

Thorson is devoted to graduate teaching.  In 2020, she will celebrate the graduation of her 52nd and 53rd doctoral advisees.  Across the world her doctoral students occupy significant positions from Korea, China, and Taiwan to American institutions stretching from Boston University to University of Southern California, and from the University of Texas-Austin to Pennsylvania State.  Thorson has served as associate dean for graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Missouri, and now at Michigan State.  While at Missouri she won the Director of Graduate Studies Outstanding Contribution Award, and from The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, she was awarded the Outstanding Woman of the Year in Journalism Education.  In 2004, she was awarded the American Advertising Federation Distinguished Advertising Education Award.  At MSU, Thorson teaches doctoral seminars on theory construction and experimental methodology.  She also teaches the honors journalism freshman course, Worlds of Media.


Leung, D. “Digital advertising: theory and research (3rd edition)”, Shelly Rodgers and Esther Thorson. Inf Technol Tourism 17, 457–460 (2017).

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