Attention is, supposedly, very important for advertising to function, but according to Facebook's planners that idea is outdated and in need of shaking up.

Marketing is essentially about creating something that will capture a person’s attention – either by paid or earned means.

It’s an old idea. Back in 1908, Elias St. Elmo Lewis laid down a relatively simple rule in his book, Financial Advertising, which persists in today’s advertising world: “If we cannot gain the reader’s attention it is manifestly impossible for us to interest or convince him.” The model that subsequently developed became known as AIDA, which sought to find Attention, pique Interest, create Desire, and inspire Action.

But the advertising world Lewis worked in was very different, requiring people to read static copy which had to persuade the reader of a product or service’s functional benefits. A hundred and ten years later is that model still worth adland’s attention?

At Facebook’s Euston offices in London, Peter Buckley – a comms planner at the social network – told an audience assembled for an IAB Digital Upfront session (London, October 2018) that the model has fundamentally changed. Much of the shift can be explained by the rise of digital advertising media, not so much through the fragmentation that has made big-ticket TV advertising less desirable to some brands, but because “digital has simply shone a light on how ads work”.

To an extent. In the IPA’s 1974 whitepaper, the much-cited Testing to Destruction, the Institute soberly remarks, “It is arrogant and unrealistic to suppose that more than a tiny fraction of the available advertising messages are likely to be selected for conscious attention and processing.” But, the paper continues, “this is not to say that the bulk of advertising messages are wasted.” The choice that the IPA then posits is one that continues to haunt planners and brand managers tasked with getting the best out of their limited budgets.

On the one hand, they might attempt get an ad into the necessarily small group of ads which are selected out in this [rational] way, or they can try to make sure the advertising works even if it is not so selected. Making sure ads work in a non-rational way is fundamental, even more so in a digital environment where viewability – as stipulated by the MRC – is considered 50% of an ad, in-view for the minimum of one second. There’s little persuading going on in that time.

In mid-2018, IPSOS brought out a large piece of research, Attention 2.0, which explored the brand impact of achieving Lewis’ first aim. The study confirmed what some theorists (including one Prof. Byron Sharp) have been talking about for a long time. Viewability, the authors concluded, “doesn’t equal attention, attention doesn’t equal brand impact. Good ads make their point quickly and clearly.”

But where does Facebook fit into this? Facebook is just another medium, albeit one that is attracting most of the growth in global marketing spend; is it really that good at hosting ads that will cut through and make a brand’s ad work despite the negligible attention users give it? Facebook has been working hard to promote its “incrementality” measurement, a new feature through which it will perform randomised control tests on ads to identify the business value that each tactic drives. It’s an attractive offer, one that Buckley framed as future media buying.

“The future is buying outcomes, not proxies,” he said. By and large, it appears that the network’s initial findings are echoing a Professor Sharp dictum: “requiring less, not more, processing is the mark of better, more effective advertising.”

What does that look like? There are three obvious methods, according to Buckley.

  1. Distinctiveness: The Coca-Cola method
    There are few examples of packaging as distinctive as the Coca-Cola bottle – not the printed red and white design but the container itself. In 1915, the market had been flooded with copycat products. So the company put out a request to manufacturers. They wanted a “bottle so distinct that it could be recognized by touch in the dark or lying broken on the ground”.

  2. Surprise
    Messaging that surprises us enhances our memory. Think about KFC’s reputation-saving masterstroke following last winter’s Chicken-gate when many of its UK outlets ran out of its core product. Mother London helped the brand to put out what Adweek described as a “print ad for the ages,” when it subtly cursed its chicken shortage.

  3. Make the audience feel something
    Getting noticed is hard. Nike achieved it superbly with its Colin Kaepernick social and print ad. The image – aside from the eventual hero film – evoked strong feelings in audiences across the world. It seems that most people felt good about it, judging by sales, even if brand metrics painted a more complex picture of US attitudes.