Out of Sight, Never in Mind

Out of Sight, Never in Mind

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist, and Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer

In the late 1950s, subliminal messaging became a mainstream sensation practically overnight when Vance Packard claimed that imperceptibly flashing the words “eat popcorn” or “drink Coca-Cola” across movie theater screens resulted in an 18-50% sales increase of those items. Years later, when no one else was able to replicate his findings, Packard finally admitted he had faked the entire study and that he did not have any proof supporting subliminal messaging either. In fact, a study by Smith and Rodgers (1994) found that participants actually had worse recall for products whose commercials contained subliminal messages. It turns out, that despite the on-and-off popularity of subliminal messaging, plain old-fashioned attention is still the name of the game in marketing.

Attention, or awareness, is the first and most crucial step towards downstream behaviors. Of course, awareness comes in different forms (implicit and explicit), but regardless of which form it takes, the human brain cannot encode, store, and retrieve information without first paying attention. This may seem obvious (and it is), but the nuance behind it is that the brain doesn’t pay attention to things randomly. Biology and the surrounding environment dictate the parameters of human awareness. There is so much going on in the world around us, the human brain needs to be selective about the subsets of sensory information it encodes and processes. This means advertisements need to be sufficiently both visible and salient for effective awareness to occur.

A great example of this is demonstrated by a recent analysis of a series of studies conducted by Lumen, TVision, and Dentsu. These studies looked at the rates of viewability (prevalence of the ad in the target market), fixation (number of times the ad was viewed by the target audience), and dwell time (amount of time consumers spent looking at the ad). This allowed the researchers to examine how often, and for how long, various ads were actually viewed relative to their prevalence in various markets (e.g., despite having exposure to 51% of the targeted market, desktop ads were only viewed for 1.7 seconds by 9% of the intended audience).

The results of these studies showed that simply having an ad prevalent in the market and available for viewing, does not necessarily mean it will attract consumers’ attention. And when the ad does attract attention, the amount of time spent viewing the ad will have a large impact on whether or not it is effective. Analyses found that increasing the dwell times on these ads significantly increased the rate of recall for the specifics of the ads themselves and the brands associated with them. Additionally, the studies showed that consumers who viewed an ad for a longer period of time reported a higher preference for the product than consumers who viewed the same ad for a shorter duration.

Some of the most striking takeaways from these studies are in how well the ads performed across the various platforms. Digital displays, such as Banner Display ads performed REALLY poorly on both metrics. Despite having a relatively high viewability, digital display ads were rarely seen by consumers at all. This same trend was found in the time spent viewing the ads across the various media platforms. Not only are digital display ads less likely to be viewed by their intended audience, but the studies also showed that the audience’s dwell time for digital display ads averaged about 1.45 seconds per ad, the lowest dwell time of all the categories evaluated in the study.

Meanwhile, the highest performing categories in time spent viewing the ad were in TV/video, which averaged nearly 9 seconds per ad. This effectiveness of video/TV far outperformed the other categories in terms of orienting and maintaining consumers’ focus, which makes sense since we are hard-wired for video over text consumption. Humans have a strong preference for multimodal learning, particularly when it utilizes both visual and auditory cues with innate meaning (as easily provided by video). Activating multiple senses during engagements allows the brain to better categorize new information, prompts a larger number of recognition factors, and ultimately leads to enhanced recall. Not only that, but as these analyses show, it will result in greater product preference as well. It is not enough to simply put the information out there with the hope that it subliminally sinks in. Studies again confirm that that isn’t how the human mind works. We look for meaning, and when we find it, then you have our attention.

Despite society’s fascination with the ideas behind subliminal messaging and mass marketing, studies continue to show that focused advertising designed to be inherently salient to its target audience is still the best path forward to effective marketing. To better understand consumer psychology and to learn more about how to leverage attention more effectively in your marketing, give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected].