The sweet spot of visual attention

Thomas Z. Ramsøy

June 25, 2020

More attention is better, right? According to the old dictum in advertising, you can never get enough of attention. After all, if you're not seen, how can you provide your best message? How can you persuade or engage your audience? It turns out, neuroscience is not that straightforward.

Too much of a good thing?

In most marketing and advertising models, attention comes first. Take the age-old AIDA model: Attention, Interest, Desire and Action...attention first. The ELAM -- Elaboration Likelihood Model -- is all about whether customers are willing to spend more attention and time to elaborate on your message.

So you wouldn't be criticized for stating "we need full attention to our ad/brand/product/message." Your peers and seniors will likely agree. We need eye-balls, eye-counts, or else we won't make an impact.

The brain prefers low-level ad attention

But it turns out that this is only halfway true. Neuroscience studies have long shown that attention is more like a glass of water: you can fill it up, but it can also be too much. How does too much water in a glass of water feel? Like a nuisance!

What does the evidence say? It actually started almost two decades ago. Robert Heath published "The hidden power of advertising" -- a book that would initially make Heath highly criticized but only later recognized for his contribution to advertising research. First, Heath recapped both the past decades of studies and more recent studies that seemed to suggest that after an initial grabbing of attention, more attention could actually be bad for advertising effects.

It was heretic! For eons, advertisers had been taught: more attention is better. More is more.

Less attention = more effect

But it seemed less is more when it comes to attention and advertising. Less attention can lead to more desirable advertising effects. How could this be?

We need to recognize that effective brand building in the traditional sense is all about persuasion -- you need to provide convincing and clear arguments to have an impact on consumers. But for long, it turned out that emotional responses -- even brief ones -- could have a stronger effect on favorable brand associations. According to Heath, brands should focus on building positive emotional associations in a brief time, rather than long, narrative stories that used metaphorical and persuasive arguments.

This point is clearly explained in Steve Genco's book "Intuitive Marketing" :

When marketing is out of the spotlight - when it is experienced in low or no attention conditions, when attention is more likely to hurt than help it, or when an audience is simply not motivated to pay attention to it - these are the circumstances under which intuitive marketing works best.

Let's be absolutely clear: if you could afford only one single book for understanding how neuroscience can help you communicate better with your customers, this is the single most important book to read!

Using Predict to balance attention levels

What turns out to be the case is that low levels of attention, especially for repeated exposures, are most effective for building brands and conveying associations.

So how should this be converted to Predict responses?

Let's make a few dos and don'ts:

  • ensure a minimum level of attention to the ad/brand
  • accept that ad/brand attention is not maximum -- do not strive for a perfect score
  • the stronger the attention is to your ad/brand, the more you can tolerate an increase in cognitive demand and a lower clarity
  • consider working on ensuring that you can control attention both to the main target and the distractors

Example 1: Procter & Gamble Super Bowl 2020

Let's have a look. In the following 2020 Super Bowl commercial, Proctor & Gamble (P&G) used Sofia Vergara to bear the narrative. Let's have a look at the Predict results in the video:

Some notable effects:

  • 0-3 seconds: the P&G brand does not generate enough attention to have an impact. This is wasted space
  • 3-57 seconds: here, the narrative plays with no P&G brand
  • 34-36 seconds: the P&G brand Bounty is shown but gets almost no attention
  • 57-60 seconds: the brand is shown here, but not attended -- viewers are not likely to see the brand itself

Taken together, if the aim of this commercial was to build brand awareness to P&G, it failed miserably. In all likelihood, viewers are not likely to remember what the ad was for, any brand associated, or possibly even the kind of product category it was for.

Through simple means, the brand could have been positioned slightly more centrally, and embedded as part of the ad narrative.

Example 2: Michelob Super Bowl 2020

In this ad, we can see a much stronger focus on the brand:

  • 10-11 seconds: a clear focus on the brand, still short enough to not stand out as an annoying part of the ad narrative
  • 13-15 seconds: more focus on the brand, this time we're approaching where brand/product focus can become too conscious
  • 53-54 seconds: the product is available and seen, and a natural part of the narrative
  • 58-60 seconds: strong focus on the product and brand

One possible recommendation for this ad is to actually take away the brand/product focus around 13-15 seconds. At this point, it feels a bit redundant and "in your face." This is something that can make viewers more aware of the brand, which in itself can be detrimental to brand building.

I this way, it is possible to use Predict to negotiate the power of attention to vital assets such as the brand and product. Why not give it a go right away? Get a free demo of Predict today.

The sweet spot of visual attention

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