The Value of Attention

If an ad runs and no one pays attention, can it be effective?

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Published on

08th Mar 2023


Nearly 140 years ago, Scientific American magazine posted a thought experiment. “If a tree were to fall on an uninhabited island, would there be any sound?” You have probably heard later versions of this involving a forest. The magazine answered that without ears to hear the transmission of the vibration, there would be no sound.


While this response has been thoroughly discussed and is often debunked, allow me to pose a variation here:


If an Ad Runs and No One Pays Attention, Can it be Effective?

Digital and video advertising are emerging from a period where industry consensus claimed that disrupting the browsing or viewing experience was not only impolite, it was counterproductive. Users and viewers would think badly of brands for interrupting.


At Perion, we knew that wasn’t the case. Research we conducted with Lucid uncovered that 60% of adults aged 18-74 (representing generations from Adult Gen Z-ers through Baby Boomers) believed at least some ads had value. 76% said they believed an ad could be a “good ad.” Perhaps surprisingly, the numbers were even higher among Millennials, who will be making key decisions on which brands to buy for many decades to come.


To help our clients (and ourselves) understand what makes an ad a “good ad” we established an ongoing UX testing program 7 years ago. With the help of our partners at System1 Research, we’ve tested hundreds of ads with more than 45,000 users across all audience segments to determine what makes them emotionally effective or ineffective. This testing yields metrics predictive of short-term campaign and long-term branding success.


A few months ago, Perion collaborated with System1 on a new measurement: Attention Trace. Beyond eye-tracking, Attention Trace captures reactions to both sight and sound. The output for each tracing resembles EEG results, with peaks and valleys of attention of various durations charted second by second as the ad is experienced.



Although our exploration is still young, we’ve already learned some valuable ways to make users and viewers sit up and take notice:


• Attention tracks closely with positive emotions. We humans vote with our eyes and ears to linger in our happy places.


• Surprise grabs attention, as long as it’s a good surprise that’s not overly jarring.


• Sound effects and music keep attention from flagging. (Ask about our ability to add binaural/high impact sound to your ad).


• Scene changes within the creative narrative typically correlate with uplifts in attention.


• And always, show rather than tell. Lots of copy or heavy voiceovers are invitations to zone out.


Going back to the question “if an ad doesn’t attract attention, can it be effective?” I believe strongly that the answer is no. There is absolutely no reason to create an ad hoping no one will notice or react to it. What a waste of time, effort and money!


Isn’t the whole point of advertising to break through, hold attention and forge connections that lead to brand and product adoption? The Mad Men and Mad Women who came before us understood that. As we wriggle free of the polite, non-disruptive ad era (and with it a lot of really bad ads), it’s time for a new flowering of ads that earn attention through their storytelling, relevance, richness and skill.


At Perion, we have every indication that brands are embracing it.


The Value of Attention is an employee-written periodical submission by Laura Salant, General Manager and Chief Storyteller, Insights at Undertone, A Perion Company. All opinions are her own. A pioneer in leveraging the possibilities of data, 2023 marks Laura’s 27th year in digital and video research and analytics.

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