NEWS2 November 2023

Greater levels of attention ‘not achievable’ for adverts

Behavioural science Media News UK

UK – It is “not achievable” to get more attention for advertising and many of the metrics used to measure attention are less effective than presumed, a Walnut Unlimited event has heard.

Eye tracking

Speaking on a panel at Walnut Unlimited’s Brainy Bar event late last month, Sarah Gale, director of research and insight at Global, said the idea of grabbing more attention from consumers for adverts clashed with modern lifestyles.

“Although more attention might be better, it is not achievable,” Gale said. “The way we live our lives means that most of the time we are doing something else – we are multitasking.

“The question is not necessarily ‘is more good?’, but how we do more with less.”

Gale added that brands needed to know their audience better, stating “we need to invest more time and effort into understanding the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’”.

Alex Brownsell, head of media at Warc, told the panel that some attention-based methodologies were insufficient.

“There are parts of the digital advertising world that are trying to find a way of seizing the interest around attention for their commercial benefit,” he said.

“They are taking out the nuance and they are trying to imprint a very simplistic scoring methodology that in theory allows you to hack attention, but to what end? We don’t know if it is actually effective.”

Speaking on the same panel, Steffan Schönherr, vice-president brand and media experience and partner at Eyesquare, said that “attention is not linear”, with the big differences seen between holding someone’s attention for one, two or three seconds tailing off when you reach eight and nine seconds.

“I am not sure that attention can help comparing different media channels,” Schönherr added.

“Attention needs to be combined with ad effectiveness. It is great if people look at something and feel positive, but clients want to sell products. We need to know if people remember the product and want to buy it afterwards.”

Speaking in a separate presentation at the event, Tim Holmes, independent neuroscientist, said that the idea that giving something more attention was a positive was not wholly correct.

“We see too many things attracting attention without any sense of giving a reward afterwards,” he said.

“We tend to assume that sustained attention is good news for an advert or package on a shelf, when in fact sustained attention is more likely to correlate with cognitive load, with confusion, with trying to understand something and potentially abhorrence.”

The result, according to Holmes, was that “the attention your ads are getting is not necessarily the same quality you are looking for”.

Covert attention was an issue, Holmes added, whereby people can look at an object but can shift their attention from it at the same time, a phenomenon that would not be picked up by an eye tracker.

“Eye tracking can only track where you look,” he said. “The rest comes from the analysis of the data.”

Andy Myers, director at Walnut, spoke about auditory attention, which he said was far from simple and worked even when people were only passively listening to adverts.

“If you ask someone to actively listen to content, people are better at recalling brands,” he explained.

“But if you look at other measures, it doesn’t follow that pattern. Consideration was about the same for brand consideration for passive condition, when they weren’t actively listening. It challenges the paradigm that we have to be aware to process information.”

Myers also said that information heavy adverts work well in talk radio, while podcasts had the highest levels of memorisation, which transfers to the adverts – thought provoking ads worked very well.

Aoife McGuinness, neuroscientist at CloudArmy, said that advertising needed to be creative with ways to hold people’s attention.

“We need to focus on the act of information processing,” she said. “Focusing on what is currently the zeitgeist, what is normal and then going away from that.

“That totally changes how we look at advertising and changes the creative process, as it is not about the thing [gaining attention in the advert] but how you process it.”