How do you create effective and memorable advertising in a world that seems to be turning inwards?

That's the question at the heart of my new book Look out, an advertising guide for today’s world.

The book is a study of attention – of what I describe as ‘narrow-’ and ‘broad-beam’ attention. Drawing further on the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, which also underpinned Lemon, and on other cultural and historical sources, Look out seeks to show how society’s attention has narrowed in the digital age. I describe how a narrowing of attention (and the loss of connection with the world and people around) brings with it a sense of anxiety, fear, solemnity, and an adversarial stance, and show how this is revealing itself in culture and in advertising today.

Self-portrait, Marianne von Werefkin (1908)

Look out traces an ‘inwards turn’ in the art of two periods that follow technological change. I take the reader back to an equivalent ‘technological disruption of the public sphere’ – the invention of the printing press – and to the heightened industrialisation of the early twentieth century to show how detachment, a loss of vitality, and an adversarial stance began to manifest themselves in the art that followed.

These can all be discerned in the rigid ‘stare’ – a striking feature of portraits and self-portraits in both periods, suggestive of both fear and the desire to dominate. Detachment is perhaps one of the greatest dangers in a period that follows a technological leap because it makes society vulnerable; the stare can be discerned in art some years before moments of great upheaval.

Well, I’m concerned that the stare is back with us and that we are seeing a similar rigidity take hold today. We see it in culture, in art and in advertising. An historical analysis of TV advertising also reveals a loss of emotional expressivity in the face. So, it seems a stare that coerces is replacing the look that caresses.

This facial frontality also gives advertising a sense of symmetry. Symmetry is the enemy of movement, and movement plays an important role in capturing our attention. Stasis (stop-motion, freeze-frame effects, the slowing down of time) continues to triumph over flow (a scene unfolding in lived time), directness (on-screen words) over the implicit (dialogue and knowing glances), rhythm over music.

I also show how advertising is not as funny as it used to be, which reflects a broader loss of humour in culture, and discuss why this might be. Humour pokes fun at rigidity – keeps it in check, keeps society flexible – and when it disappears, we need to be concerned. It suggests that something much more serious is happening in culture than merely a change of mood.

What are the implications of all this for advertising effectiveness?

This is where the study of attention is particularly helpful. In Look out, I describe the different ways in which we might think about attention, and provide evidence to show that brand building advertising needs to capture the ‘broad-beam’ attention (vigilance, alertness, sustained and global attention – governed by the right hemisphere of the brain) of a broad audience to achieve lasting business effects, brand fame and trust.

Yet, increasingly in a world where attention has narrowed, advertising is designed for narrow-beam attention (governed by the left hemisphere) – up-close product shots that already assume an interest in the brand. This might achieve direct and short-term effects if targeted at those in the buying window – drive people to a website, or download an app – but it is unlikely to capture the broad-beam attention of broad reach audiences or therefore create the broad and lasting effects that advertising can, at its best, achieve. Advertising designed for narrow-beam attention harvests demand rather than creates it.

What kind of advertising features do capture the broad-beam attention of the right hemisphere?

Working with attention monitoring company TVision and System1’s own data, I show how advertising where something happens involving characters in a defined space – with characters, animals, human connection, music – is more likely both to elicit the emotional response needed for brand building and to capture attention – to connect with audiences.

Advertising with features associated with narrow-beam attention, that’s to say advertising with product close-ups, abstracted features, the freezing of time, words on the screen, rhythmic soundtracks and in particular the stare, causes people to look away – to detach.

I also seek to tackle the question of whether it is possible to build a brand with online video. It is more difficult, but not impossible to build a brand with online video. Online video can be very helpful for brands that aren’t yet ready to make the leap to TV or for those brands wishing to extend the reach of TV, but pre-roll and in-feed environments are more goal-orientated and do present a challenge when it comes to capturing and holding attention.

Can the creative itself overcome this? Drawing on tests with and data from System1, TVision and Lumen, I show that ads in pre-roll and in-feed environments that succeed in holding attention beyond the first few seconds (no mean feat) are more likely to depict a scene unfolding, with characters, animals, implicit communication, and music. But online video advertising tends more typically to be characterised by features designed for narrow-beam attention, and these features have in turn been carried over to TV advertising in the last decade or more.

Why is the study of broad-beam attention so important in a technologically disrupted world?

Because many brands will find that their physical presence is reduced as they move online. When physical availability is lost, so too is mental availability. By moving online, established brands also lose a barrier to entry. This is where advertising – and of one particular type – comes in: brand building advertising. Knowing how to create advertising for broad-beam attention will therefore become more important, not less, in a digital world.

In the final chapter of the book, I describe how we might turn our attention outwards, how we might look out, and provide further evidence, guidance, and – I hope – inspiration for advertisers wanting to create advertising with lasting effects, that elicits an emotional response and captures broad-beam attention. This starts with an appreciation of human uniqueness, movement and ‘betweenness’; it requires advertising with character, incident and place, and an appreciation of music and humour. I also explore the benefits of colour grading, grain and diffusion.

In short, I show that we need advertising today with wit and charm, with human vitality, advertising that entertains. And in a time of heightened anxiety, detachment and enmity, what could be more wonderful, than that?

Look out by Orlando Wood (IPA, 2021) is available direct from the IPA or on Amazon.