Dino Myers-Lamptey / Managing Director at Mullenlowe Group

Attention: There’s an Invisible Media Gorilla in The Room

Did you see the gorilla?

Remember, the gorilla that walks through the scene of basketball players passing a ball in the famous experiment on attention by the psychologist Daniel Simmons. Yes, that one, the one you never saw the first time you took the test and saw the video. This now well-known experiment revealed something quite fascinating in how we thought about the concept of attention, and the difference between what we look at and what we really see. The ‘invisible gorilla’ drew our collective attention to the “illusion of attention” – the mistaken belief that we take in everything from the world around us, and if we see something important or unexpected it will automatically grab our attention.

This study perhaps told us more about advertising than many of the books, blogs and gurus have since. The gorilla wasn’t just a prop in an experiment, it has also inadvertently become a metaphor for advertising placements and the common debates of today. I believe we can use this gorilla to give us some answers to our questions and correct some of our own illusions.

The first illusion: An impression/impact is a set of eyeballs that not only sees but notices your ad

As the work from Daniel Simmons proves, we can all too often assume we’re getting attention, when we are in fact not. Technology and research have allowed us to understand that not every media placement that is bought is seen, and this is the truth across every media channel, whether it be by viewers walking out of the room, or looking out of the window when the pre-roll starts, Adbots scrolling away, or readers just not reading the entire magazine from cover to cover. This is a reality of advertising where there’s an unpredictable element determined by human behaviour.

So, we must refrain from writing off anything that can’t be completely tracked, instantly measured or even media that will have some degree of ad avoidance. The impact of this unknown needs to be considered specifically to that particular media buy and it needs to be reflected in the cost of buying that particular media, summing the probability of ad avoidance, multiplied with the probability of desired action as a result of being seen. As planners and buyers, we need to know the pitfalls, and seek out the best ‘most likely to grab attention’ formats within that media environment, and then agree a price that is likely to give an effective return for the investment.

By being honest with the flaws of all media and our methods of measurement, we can move on to think more closely about what the ingredients are of going beyond just seeing, and to becoming noticed.

Second illusion: Attention is the goal in itself

The gorilla was the version of your advert trying to get attention. It ticked many of the boxes. It was distinctive, it was right in the heart of the content, and it maintained a presence on the screen. However, for most people, it didn’t quite do enough to get noticed. This is the paradox of creativity, which as we know is an equation we haven’t yet solved. This isn’t because creatives just aren’t that good at maths or interested in business outcomes, it’s because just like the art of telling a joke, there’s an element of the unknown that makes the thing itself great. Advertising after all is about persuasion, and attention is the first moment on a pathway.

Lumen’s eye tracking research into Digital MPU formats highlighted concerning leakage in the attention funnel, which highlights the differences between viewability and viewing. They identified how the average MPU was only being viewed by 20 per cent of those who could see it, and more startling was that from those only 3 per cent were viewing the ad for more than one second!

This reality changes how we should view attention and it as a goal in advertising. Attention must be considered on a spectrum. While it can play a role at opening the doors to many new levels in the ‘conversion towers’, its goal is to create an audience for creativity, and it is creativity that must graft the hard yards and deliver communications that we want to give extra time to. Chief to this is the insight behind the creative. Insights contrary to popular belief don’t have to all be Isaac Newton-esque apple dropping moments. What they have to do though is reframe the way a product or problem was seen to an audience that is generally really good at avoiding advertising and assuming they already know the punch line to the joke. The genius behind Mother’s KFC, FCK ad was exactly that, it grabbed mass attention by creating something surprising within something so familiar, and its insight was to not shying away from issue and admit the fact that behind the brand were real people who were just as baffled and gutted about the predicament, but ultimately like a friend sending you a text message with a typo, just human. There are usually a number of insights to direct a creative, but the ones which can sustain mass attention and get more people agreeing, are the ones that make the difference.

Pick up any magazine and you’ll see plenty of missed opportunities, but there are also great examples that are long and lasting. Examples like Ikea’s Pee Ads by Akestam Holst which didn’t just advertise baby cots, but also doubled up as pregnancy tests, and MullenLowe’s edible paper ads made to advertise Jet Blue’s new in-flight menus which tasted so good, are just a couple of great examples that took us through the attention door and onto a whole new level. The beauty of these examples, were that they insight married the product with the medium, making the experience of those who tried it, unforgettable.

So, we should not just think of the ad only viewed for one second having little or no affect, and nor should we consider it equal to the one that was viewed for 30 seconds. We need to recognise and agree that attention on advertising calculated as a time metric does correlate to effectiveness, and there are minimum and critical levels needed to fulfil certain objectives along the purchase cycle.

In planning, your objectives for attention can and should vary depending on the stage of persuasion your audience are currently residing. Good planners and buyers must treat attention as a scare resource where its value flexes in line with the audience’s position and closeness to conversion with your brand. If they’re nearly there, then the short polite nudge could be perfect, however the opposite could be needed for those who you are trying to get onto a journey. Different mediums can play different roles along this spectrum of attention, and the most effective brands will flex across it. Most of all we need to be creatively ambitious and strive to produce the kind of work that people will be happy to give the extra few seconds towards.

The third illusion: The message is greater than the moment

If there’s one thing certain about the gorilla experiment, it is that nearly everyone would have taken part in a controlled and focussed environment. Actively looking out for something.

The real world as we know, isn’t a research study. In most instances when an advert tries to gain our attention, we are busy pursuing something else, whether reading news, or getting updates on those friends who have amazing lives. With this, our mind is focussed on some kind of task for the moment.

Context matters. Your mood, your mindset, your interest in the message within the ad. What it’s surrounded by and the environment in which you are consuming it, can all have a dramatic affect. Mobile has allowed us to fill traditionally deadtime, such as waiting at the bus stop, with media, however this tends to be the short video, and headline snackable articles. Our efforts should be channelled into understanding the relative power of a medium not in abstraction, but in its real-world instances and moments that it is experienced.

These moments can make the success or failure of a message. Media that can create more consistent moments within more trusted environments can be used to channel a message suitable for those occasions. As Professor Karen Nelson-Field, Professor of Media Innovation at the University of Adelaide explains:

“In looking under the hood, we find that visibility drives more attention than the nature of the content itself (emotional pull). This means a low-emotion ad will still gain more attention when distributed on a more visible platform than a highly emotional ad that can barely be seen. However, the combination of both is ideal.”

At Mediahub our data analysts have run thousands of creative testing campaigns, where messaging variables are targeted to the same audiences, and repeatedly we find that the biggest variable of success is the moment in which the advert would reach the targeted individual. The very same individuals would show large variations in engagement and response, depending on the moment in which we had managed to reach them. This moment was so powerful that it would consistently trump the message.

The final illusion: The answer is in the data

We should strive to measure attention, but we should appreciate that this measure should look at the whole spectrum of it, and its relationship in amplifying the elements that lead to persuasion. As we know from econometrics, the effects of advertising and each of its elements can be compared to making a cake, where each media channel is a different ingredient, yet there is a large amount of unknown ingredients, outside of your control. So, the analogy is more like making a cake where you can only add half the ingredients, and there are others in another room who are responsible for adding the rest of the ingredients. Media and advertising will for the foreseeable future continue to have these challenges, and while we may think we are definitely getting closer to the answer through the work of Lumen and others, we can and should expect the challenges of technology, fraudsters and unpredictable human behaviour to throw up new learnings and surprises.

Whatever the new measure or metric, and whether our analogy is baking cakes or spotting gorillas, we must take a step away and pause to find our own very visible media gorillas. Appreciate attention as an important doorway that gives permission and access to more levels and opportunities for persuasion, leading to something we perhaps took for granted in the past. A moment with your full undivided attention, connected within context. A moment with media, quite possibly, a moment such as now.