Attention in Advertising

Mike Vito and Louis Perrotta

Prof. Yu

BC: Art and Visual Perception

2 May 2006

Gaze and attention constitute two essential parts of print advertising. The task of finding out how people look at an advertisement, what catches viewers’ attention most quickly, and what makes a product look most desirable to a magazine or newspaper reader can be daunting for marketing executives. Luckily for them, an understanding of the science behind visual perception can prove to be a great tool of the trade.

The role of images in advertising can be better understood when we study certain phenomena related to gaze and attention. One important concept is that of attention itself. It is said to be an orienting response to a stimulus signifying that the stimulus has made contact with a sense organ (Clark 70). One function of attention is to regulate the amount of additional processing effort a stimulus receives (Clark 70). Obviously, paying closer attention involves more processing effort.

Additional perspective on visual attention can be found in the work of Dr. Edward Titchener, whose laws of attention provide a good synopsis of basic knowledge regarding attention. The laws state that attention, which is unstable in itself, can be varied at will to change the clarity of sensory representations. This means one can choose to focus on specific things to make them more clearly accessible to the mind. According to Titchener, the area of focus and what is outside of it are the only two levels of attention, so focusing on one image leads to a decrease in the clarity of all other images. The mind is also found to be attentive enough to remember images shown only for a brief period (Wright 18-19). 

Another necessary aspect of attention and advertising is iconicity, which describes the fact that pictures recreate the kinds of visual information that our eyes and brains make use of when we look at the real world (Messaris 7). According to Paul Messaris, Iconicity does not have to entail a complete surface similarity between a picture and reality as long as the picture reproduces visual cues that we use in real world vision. This concept is not confined to just to the content of images but can also be characteristic of their formal or stylistic qualities (Messaris 54).

In other words, we expect pictures to verify our conception of the world. This is why, when a picture violates reality, it draws our attention so effectively. For an example, one can examine an advertisement for the liquor brand Level. The ad depicts a bottle balancing on a shaker in a position where the bottle would obviously fall in reality. Unexpectedly, the bottle stays where it is, violating the laws of gravity. Unnatural depictions such as this give rise to what is known as a “conceptual conflict,” in which a strange and surprising set of circumstances in an advertisement brings uncertainty to the reader, requiring more cognitive energy to understand. This promotes better attention because the confusion must be resolved in order to understand the ad, and the work done by the mind promotes better memory of the answer (East 45). The Level ad turned out to be one of the more popular of our experiment, giving the argument some legitimacy.

Besides conceptual conflict, marketers also make use of archetypes in their advertising. Archetypes use culturally shared meanings in order to engage the audience and impart ideas (East 50). As an example, a depiction of a flawless woman would appeal to common notions of beauty and assist the viewer in associating positive affect with the product.

Another tendency of viewers is to respond well to a spokesperson or model staring directly outward, seeming to look into the viewers’ eyes or reach into the viewer’s “real” space (Messaris 145). People tend to be especially responsive to the eyes and mouth, which they normally look at during everyday interaction with their peers (Messaris 146). Greater perceived proximity has been shown to increase attention and involvement with advertisements (Messaris 29).

These facts about attention bring us to the question of how psychology and attention affect companies’ advertising strategy. Physically attractive spokespeople and designs, high contrast, a concentrated area of focus, and the occasional violation of the laws of physics are often seen in today’s advertisements, as evidenced by a casual look through a popular magazine. The question remains unanswered as to which of them people value more, and how much is appropriate for selling a product. To some extent, this depends on the target demographic. However, we undertook research in an effort to find if any generalities could be made. 

The aim of a study by Mike Vito and Louis Perrotta was to find out what people generally focus on most when they see advertisements, in this case for alcohol. Twenty-one college-aged participants, fifteen male and six female, were used.  Viewers were brought to a special room, where they were told to look at a variety of advertisements with an eye-tracking machine set up in front of them. After filling out a short survey about previous experience with alcohol, they were then shown some alcohol advertisements on a large screen in three separate groups of seven each. The advertisements were pulled from men’s magazines such as Maxim, For Him Magazine, Blender, and Stuff. All other lights were turned off while the advertisements were being viewed. Subjects were told to verbally rate the appeal of the ads on a Likert scale of one to seven, seven being very appealing and one being not at all appealing. The subject was asked to give the rating after he/she had 15 seconds to view the advertisement. The signal to give a verbal rating was a blank gray screen, which appeared for five seconds.

After each set of images was shown, the participant was given a survey to fill out regarding which image he/she liked best and which one he/she remembered best. When this survey was finished, another was given with a few prepared words that describe possible opinions of the advertised product. Examples of the words are “classy”, “smooth”, “good-tasting”, and “exciting”. Participants would check whichever words on the list applied to their personal view of each product, based on the advertisement. They would not be allowed to fill in the survey until the set was finished. The eye tracker used during the viewing of ads was first calibrated to the individual participants. It then monitored where exactly viewers focused their attention on the ad, providing color-coded displays indicating areas of frequent focus shown over the ad itself. Yellow meant a short period of fixation, and red meant a longer period of fixation. Areas without fixation were simply unchanged on the display.

We found that the best-liked advertisements had few, but informative, focal points. On the other hand, the least liked advertisements had no specific focal point but multiple points spread across the entire page, which confused the participants and generally made the advertisements less memorable and less effective. A common problem with the advertisements that were pulled from men’s magazines for the research was overcrowding. In an effort to pack lots of information or images onto a small page, the companies hurt themselves by making it hard for the viewer to pick a single area to look at. The “good” examples, on the other hand, had a single concentrated area that prominently displayed the message and brand, and this appealed most to our participants. This is because viewers find it hard to focus on one point and decrease the clarity of all other points, as described in Titchener’s laws (Wright 18) if the entire area of the image seems important.

The research revealed that obvious focal points like faces, objects held conspicuously in the hand, brand names and other large text, and bottles were focused on most. High contrast stimuli, such as bright colors divided by sharp visual edges, also drew attention. Abrupt changes in luminance were also found to be attractive to the eyes. Because of high amounts of variance, no significant findings were made regarding the importance of frequency or quantity of drinking. Nor were there significant differences between the ads themselves in appeal. This lack of significance likely has more to do with the small sample size than actual quality of the ads. However, certain statistically significant findings were made regarding the gender of the viewer for some specific images. Images such as an Evan Williams ad with a pretty and tightly clothed woman showed a significantly greater level of approval among men than women despite the fact that both groups looked at the same areas of the advertisement equally. Also significant was the finding that advertisements emphasizing female bodies, sex appeal, and typically masculine sporting activities such as fly-fishing (as featured in another Evan Williams ad) tended to appeal more to men, who were meant to be the target audience of that kind of advertising or product. In light of this, we would have done well to ask about sexual orientation, so we could see what kind of effect that has on opinions of advertising.

Hopefully, this work will provide fellow students with some insight about how companies try to grab readers’ attention. An understanding of how changing color and luminance, a small number of very prominent focal points, and other important visual cues in an advertisement can draw attention can prove exceptionally useful for those entering the advertising business. In addition, a knowledge of these techniques can be useful in all of our lives because we all face the pressures of consumerism each day.  Companies’ desire for profitable advertising will continue to lead to new discoveries regarding attention, vision, and the interplay of psychology and marketing.  In order to look out for our own best interests we must be able to interpret everyday advertisement stimuli from an informed perspective.


Clark, Eddie M., Brock, Timothy C., and Stewart, David W (editors). Attention, Attitude, and Affect in Response to Advertising. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, Associates, 1994.

East, Robert. The Effect of Advertising and Display: Assessing the Evidence. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003.

Messaris, Paul. Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1996.

Wright, Richard D. (editor). Visual Attention. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.