The following is an excerpt from Attention in Advertising by Mike Vito and Louis Perrotta.
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
If you made it here and you want to know how their research unfolds, congratulations. Congratulations for not
fueling the ads with your attention. Being aware of tactics being used and that may be used in the future
will help us maintain our identities.
Please check out the full piece at