Introducing the 2024 Brainy Bar, Dr Cristina de Balanzo of Walnut Unlimited outlined a world where there are more advertising opportunities than ever before but where consumers have learned to filter out much of the content brands are putting in front of them. 

That’s one reason why advertising metrics are under review. Opportunities to see don’t count for much if people are ignoring the ads – attention is now the buzzword. “Attention is a necessary condition for advertising effectiveness,” she observed, “but there is no real common understanding of it.” There are different models of attention, different metrics pertaining to attention depending on media. “We really need more consensus,” she said.

Eye-tracking and attention measures

Before consensus comes understanding. “Attention is complicated,” said Dr Tim Holmes, neuroscientist and honorary research associate at Royal Holloway College. It can be overt or covert, voluntary or involuntary, visual or auditory (or indeed multimodal). 

And while attracting attention can be quite simple – “all you have to do is stand out, be a bit different, be a bit noisy, don’t fit into the environment that you’re actually in” – holding attention is another matter entirely, there needs to be some sort of reward. But do advertisers necessarily want to hold consumers’ attention if all that does is increase cognitive load and possibly produce confusion? 

In a talk titled ‘Eye tracking and essential relationship status’, Holmes noted that eye tracking can only measure overt attention but it can also tell something about voluntary and involuntary attention. “Eye tracking can tell us about attention, but only if you do it right,” he stated. “And by doing it right, I mean designing the research well, using the right kind of equipment, thinking about your participants, thinking about the context that you’re collecting the data in and analysing that data correctly.”

He offered up three tips: 

  • Get the test right. “If you use the task correctly, you can link overt attention to voluntary visual attention. And if you’re doing that, you will also potentially learn something about involuntary attention.” 
  • Don’t make it easy – it’s important to make the task meaningful to provide the sort of attention brands will encounter in the real world with all its distractions. 
  • Understand the limitations of eye-tracking tech and what a heat map is really showing you about attention paid to ads. Webcam eyetrackers aren’t as accurate as lab-based ones; “human vision is not pixel level accurate, ever – and eye trackers aren’t either”; and while you might get the same attention for ads in various scenarios, “the attention that your ads are getting are not necessarily the same quality, and they’re not necessarily the quality that you’re looking for”. (And, he added, think about inattention too – “eye-trackers can certainly tell you what people didn’t look at!”)

Tapping cognitive conflict

Aoife McGuinness, customer neuroscience manager at Cloud Army, introduced the audience to the notion of cognitive conflict via neuro-aesthetics. 

“An aesthetically appealing experience elicits pleasure through the act of comprehension,” she explained. “And this act of comprehension elicits pleasure through abstract reward – through detection of novelty, pattern form, violation of expectation, all of these different things.” 

What’s becoming clear, she continued, is that the pleasure derived from aesthetic experience is less about the specific features and more about the act of information processing. This is where cognitive conflict comes in – as a signal of something interesting that is forcing a person to pay more attention. And it can be measured via frequency oscillation in the mid-frontal region of the brain. (Her own research has indicated a link between theta power activation and memory, suggesting that this is kind of a metric that could help to understand if something can be remembered or not.)

As far as advertising is concerned, she referred to “aesthetic aha” – “that moment that just catches you and it makes you second guess or double take” – and rewards the consumer in some way. “When there’s a puzzle to be solved, the kind of visual trick that people get pleasure from because they’re engaging in meaning processes – now they’re getting pleasure from understanding.” 

A couple of caveats here though. “People get pleasure from these kinds of stimulus up until a certain point of complexity. When there’s too much complexity, then what happens is the pleasure decreases.”

And copying others is not a great strategy. Cadbury’s Gorilla ad worked for the brand but “then all the other brands started putting animals in their ads and all of a sudden the effect just diminishes. 

“We should not be focusing on the images here. We should be focusing on the act of information processing,” McGuinness advised. “That opens up a whole other door of how we consider communication, how we consider creative effectiveness and how we look at advertising.” 

There is a “sweet spot of conflict” which depends on multiple factors – what mindset people are in, how much cognitive resource do they have available (and how much do they want to take on), are they even interested in what you’re talking about. It may be hard to pinpoint, but artists tend to hit it pretty well, she suggested – and the advertising industry tends to pick up on trends in art. 

Audio attention is different 

Attention in the auditory world is a very different matter. Walnut’s Andy Myers explained that it’s temporal – it takes time to decode all the signals the ear is picking up – and that while you can close your eyes, your ears are always on and covering sounds near and far. And there’s no “ear tracker” for audio attention.

But a piece of research with Global sought to dig a little deeper into the erroneous industry notion that high attention is necessarily good and low attention bad. Participants were divided into two attention states of active and passive listeners, with the latter asked to perform a task while listening to music radio, talk radio or podcasts which included ad breaks with several different types of ad. 

Active listeners were better at recalling brands, as one might expect, but brand consideration was the same or higher for passive listeners. “That challenges the paradigm that we have to be aware to be able to process information,” said Myers. 

The post-research survey also included some fake information which active listeners were more likely to say they recalled – “again, it doesn’t mean that active listening is necessarily good and high attention is necessarily good”.

Congruence is important for the processing of advertising and how our attention shifts within that, he added. An ad that might be an abrupt shift in mood on music radio, for example, could work well in a talk radio context where a host is already switching continually between callers. 

Brand familiarity will also be a factor in gaining active or passive attention. “Second brand mentions in radio advertising gave a boost,” Myers noted. “There’s a media planning take out there about repetition of advertising.” 

There is, he concluded, “a massive spectrum between what we call active and passive attention”. And the good thing from an advertiser’s point of view is that “attention is prone to even the simplest priming – I can guide your attention quite easily.”