Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Evolution and Advertising - Part 3: Pop ups in our past.

Despite the mass of advertising that the average consumer faces every day, it is clear that some messages constantly grab our attention irrespective of our interest.

So why are some forms of advertising particularly salient and robust against the noise of mass marketing? One answer is attentional capture.

Cognitive psychologists argue that at any given time, people have limited resources to devote to all possible tasks and incoming information. In regards to human vision, most agree that sudden movements and bright colour tends to naturally draw our attention, perhaps involuntarily. This is known as attentional capture. It has been hypothesised that this prioritising of attentional resources to new visual objects has evolved due to predatory associations. It makes obvious sense that our attention is drawn to new visual objects to assess them for danger or potential threats.

Literature outlines that there may be two separate mechanisms at work when analysing visual attention, with attentional resources captured in a ‘goal directed’ fashion, whereby attention is directed based on a the task at hand, or involuntarily in a ‘stimulus driven’ fashion’ when attention is draw to an object that is unrelated to a potential task. While modern day marketers often aim to capture our attention through sophisticated, aesthetically pleasing and humorous advertising, it is apparent that campaigns are also developed to capitalise upon our raw, stimulus driven impulses.

Research illustrates that attention is broadly allocated to multiple elements within a visual scene, not simply by their location, but according to their position and status as noted in preattentive visual organisation. Attention is subsequently provided to aspects of our visual scene for which it deems to be most relevant. It has been reported that the abrupt appearance of objects, apparent visual movement and luminance changes are highly prioritised within this attentional hierarchy.

Studies indicate that the abrupt onset of a visual object captures attention automatically. These studies reveal that even when observers are attending to other tasks, an abrupt visual onset of an object is processed first. Thus, these onsets have been argued to capture our attention in a purely stimulus driven fashion. Internet pop-up advertising capture similar attentional resources to those of abrupt onsets. These messages draw us away from the task at hand to apply our attention, even if only for a moment, to an advertising message or brand. This is not necessarily because we are interested in what the advertisement is saying, but rather that we are hard wired to attend to them.

Theories regarding the perception of luminance also outline that a rapid luminance increase is detected by visual mechanisms which are selectively tuned to the onset of luminance signals. These signals are transferred to higher level cognitive mechanisms, indicating the importance of this change in luminance and that attention must be directed towards it. Similarly to the abrupt onset of a new object, an increase in luminance also captures our attention being perceived as a new visual object. It goes without saying that a flashing light from a police car in our rear view mirror captures our attention, but so too do flashing neon signs and advertisements at the football. With the rapid increase of luminance, a new visual object is perceived, and similarly to abrupt onsets, we are momentarily captivated.

Movement within a visual scene is also detected easily by humans, with unexpected object movement also reported to capture our attention. If we think about it, it is not uncommon to wave our arms to capture someone’s attention within a crowd, or wave a flag to slow down F1 drivers after a crash. Well maybe that’s a little uncommon, but overall, movement detection is robust. Interestingly, research indicates that visual movement is most salient when it may be used to indicate the location of visual targets, while not as successful in capturing our attention if it fails to predict a targets location. This also makes sense in evolutionary terms. It would not benefit us to attend to irrelevant movement cues, while it makes perfect sense for us to detect the location of a predator in the undergrowth, as indicated by a brief calculation of these cues.

Outdoor digital billboards and online banner advertising heavily employ visual motion to draw consumer attention to a message or brand. Despite consumers having to attend to the road while driving, to the players while watching sport or to the rise and fall of the stock market on the computer, we are constantly interrupted to notice potentially irrelevant advertising. When watching digital advertising surrounding major sporting events it is clear to see how cues of motion have been used to draw our attention. Brand messages or logos fly across the billboard, not unlike an advancing threat, engaging our attention and visual resources long enough to recognise the brand and create a visual impression, but not to decipher a complex message. On the internet, banner advertising is constantly in motion, with brands, logos and products dropping in from all areas, again diverting our attention for split second.

Practical Implications:

While companies often employ the use of attentional capture via the abrupt onset of objects, sudden increases in luminance and the implementation of movement cues, it is also apparent that the effectiveness of such advertising is also waning as they begin to over-saturate the market. Studies report that the more intrusive an advertisement is perceived, the less effective it will be. It appears that consumers are starting to block their innate impulses in order to increase productivity and reduce distraction, especially when advertising is perceived as highly intrusive to the task at hand.

So, how do we capitalise on our innate impulses, while also reducing advertising intrusiveness? One solution may be congruency. Studies which have focused primarily on web based advertising have noticed that the more congruent the advertising is to the current web page, the less the viewer will actively block the attentional capture and the more likely they are to retain its information. Particularly it has been reported that viewers are more likely to retain the information from the advertisement if it employs the same colour palette as that of the web site. I noticed a similar example on the television the other evening while watching the Rugby Union, where Mercedes cleverly advertised their company in a pop-up message that was so congruent with the current context, that I thought it was a player profile or notification of a players substitution. It was not until I had read and comprehended the message, that I realised I had been duped!

Ultimately, in a busy and noisy world, where mass marketing is king, the fight for attentional resources is very real. In shaping and implementing campaigns, we must acknowledge the limited information capacity system of humans, but also be aware of more modern annoyances. This is a fine line to tread. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that to achieve success via maximal brand recognition and information retention, modern day marketers must capitalise on human beings innate reflexes to attend to potentially relevant information in a purely stimulus driven manner. This is no smash and grab job however, marketers must also act creatively and unobtrusively to obtain maximal attentional resources, brand recall and positive brand recognition.

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Yantis, S., & Hillstrom, A. P. (1994). Stimulus-driven attentional capture: evidence from equiluminant visual objects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 20(1), 95–107.

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