Emotional TV commercials don’t need so much attention

For advertising to work consumers have to notice it.  And the more processing they do the better, though for an awful lot of advertising very little processing is needed – it’s only advertising after all, the message is very simple, and this is particularly true for emotion oriented advertising – whereas persuasive, information oriented advertising suffers from the requirement to gain a degree of processing including rational  conscious processing.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Advertising Research there is a characteristically interesting article by Robert Heath (with colleagues Agnes Nairn and Paul Bottomley).  It somewhat controversially shows that viewers pay slightly less, not more, ‘attention’ to emotion oriented (as opposed to rational persuasion oriented) TV commercials.  The authors speculate that perhaps emotion oriented ads work by inducing less rational thinking and hence stimulate fewer counter arguments – I think such an effect would be trivial, there is a much more simple plausible explanation of how emotion oriented ads work…read on.

What the study actually showed is that respondents (31 Uni students and staff) have slightly more eye “fixations per second” when watching rational more information rich TV commercials.  You see our eyes don’t tend to sit or move smoothly over stimulus, but rather pause (fixate) on things that we are processing – see here.  This laboratory experiment measured “fixations per second” using a lightweight eye-tracking camera worn on the head of each respondent while they watched a TV episode (Frasier) with ad breaks.  Put like this the results don’t sound too extraordinary, nor controversial.  Less information rich advertising needs less attention to process, and more information rich advertising is likely to get more attentive attention especially in such a laboratory.

As Heath et al discuss at the start of their paper, in the real world consumers ignore a good deal of advertising.  We summarised the literature some years ago and concluded that about one third of the time people pay active attention to TV commercials, one third of the time they pay some attention but are also paying attention to other things in the room (e.g. having conversations, reading, cuddling, surfing the web), and for the remaining third of the time they physically avoid the commercials through leaving the room or switching channels.  In Heath’s experiment respondents had very little ability, or motivation, to fully or partially avoid the commercials.  In the real world this is where much of the advantage of emotion oriented advertising – it’s more enjoyable and easier to watch, over and over. But the other real advantage is that emotion-oriented advertising is simply easier to process, so it can work with very little conscious processing.  Emotional appeals are easier on us viewers because they don’t require slow, resource intensive rational concious thinking.  Quite simply such advertising doesn’t need so much attention.

PS Requiring less, not more, processing is probably a mark of better more effective advertising. As is generating more attention and processing.
REFERENCES Heath, Nairn and Bottomley (2009) “How Effective is Creativity? Emotional content in TV advertising does not increase attention”, Journal of Advertising Research, Deember 2009, p.450-463. Paech, S., E. Riebe, and B. Sharp. 2003. “What Do People Do In Advertisement Breaks?” In Proceedings of the Australian & NZ Marketing Academy Conference, Adelaide, p.155 – 162. www.MarketingScience.info

4 thoughts on “Emotional TV commercials don’t need so much attention

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