Can't Keep My Eyes off of You - Part 1

By Posted 21 May 2024

In the past couple of years, bursting onto the marketers’ pop charts has been visual attention as it relates to audience measurement and more generally, marketing communications. Amongst this work has been the application of eye-tracking technology and important findings with respect to an appropriate assessment and valuation of digital impressions.

Whenever marketing vendors venture into an area of science, you should ensure your cynicism filter is turned on full. You only need to look back ten years ago to “neuromarketing” to see the ugly side of overclaiming stooped behind a vail of “science.” My personal favorite was tee-shirts that measured the physiological presence of emotion. Did anyone ever find a relationship between electrodermal response (specifically perspiration) and buyer behavior?

I suspect the vendors know that those listening have insufficient time or will to assess the veracity of claims. It is rarely the best science that gains notoriety but rather, the best flimflam person on stage.

So, I have written a long (sorry) piece which sets out the science of attention as I understand it. This is Part One. In Part Two we use these first principles to assess the latest attention-based elixirs presently on high rotation at conferences.

Crucial to discussing attention as it relates to marketing communication is discussing the neural processing of vision. Visual attention is important because, after all, overt or focal attention and covert or peripheral attention are separately and together, vehicles of good marketing communication. Both forms of vision, attention and their respective roles in marketing communications are presented below.

Put plainly, different kinds of attention – focal or peripheral, are important for different aspects of marketing communications. Lumping focal and peripheral attention into a single bucket would ignore decades of literature and advancements in neuroscience, advertising, marketing, and psychology.

Different kinds of attention are important for different aspects of marketing communications

And lastly before we get started, the focus here is about attention as it relates to effective creative. Also relevant is a timely refresher that when it comes to marketing communications, what you say is more important that where you say it[i].

The two processors of attention

For marketing communications to be effective, we need to lay two foundation stones. First and most challengingly, advertising needs to elicit an emotion associated with the ownership or consumption of the product/service and then link that emotion to our brand. Emotion is not only a crucial aspect of the brand choice but also plays a significant role in creating lasting memories.[ii]

Whilst emotion can be processed with high, low or no attention, high attention, also known as overt attention, is not an essential precursor for eliciting emotion. Indeed, in most instances, emotion processed non-consciously precedes overt attention. A useful consequence of this understanding is that the neural load of eliciting emotion in marketing communication can be managed partly or even entirely non-consciously. That is, without cognition – without overt attention.

The second foundation stone is to teach the prospective market something distinctive about the brand, that drives choice. This requires a shift into the territory of the executional antecedent disruption to gain overt attention and so engage cognitive resources to facilitate this teaching.

The objective is to teach the prospective market the reasons to believe (rational behavioral drivers). This assumes that the hierarchy of rational drivers of choice has been scientifically derived, the drivers have been chosen based on competitive position and capability and finally, the drivers are embodied into the creative brief. Oh, there is something else, the creative agency abides by the creative brief.

Overt attention is the foundational step of cognitive based leaning

The use of overt attention to engage cognitive resources is a requirement of conscious learning, and therefore, the communication must firstly disrupt the consumer’s “single lane” cognitive processor. Having gained overt attention through disruption, the creative then needs to teach and move the learning from the short-term, working memory to the medium- and long-term memory. Please keep in mind, we are talking about overt attention and cognitive processing. Overt attention is the foundational step of cognitive based leaning.

Holding overt attention for the full “lesson” is rarely achieved and so the need for repetition, or using media-planning parlance, frequency, is of paramount importance. Kind of like learning your multiplication tables.

Emotion and attention are two essential precursors of effective advertising, but of course, their presence in advertising does not guarantee success. Ineffective advertising can elicit emotion and gain attention but with no desired effect on behaviour. This is most likely because the emotion elicited, and attention gained are not linked to the category’s drivers of choice.

Does gaze equal attention?

Relative to our non-conscious processing, cognitive processing, that is, our thinking capacity, is limited and effortful. In marketing communications, for every additional rational driver added to the communication, there is a significant reduction in the market’s capability to recall the first message and a rapidly, diminishing capability to recall additional messages.

Only the small proportion of our eyesight that is elevated from the low resolution, peripheral to the high-resolution fovea, gains humans’ overt, focused attention. This is not to say that our first sight is not sometimes overt, focal vision or indeed, sometimes peripheral vision progresses to focal vision. Peripheral stimuli can and does capture attention sometimes leading to conscious awareness and cognitive processing. The point is, one can lead to the other but, they are different.

Importantly if everything in our peripheral field of vision was instantly elevated from covert attention to overt attention, then our cognition would be overwhelmed. Well over ninety per cent of our vision is peripheral. While effortful cognition is processing focal vision, covert peripheral vision is being processed by the great neural mothership; the non-conscious.

This is not to say that peripheral vision processed non-consciously has no value in marketing communications. Again, non-conscious processing such as emotional response and memory formation are foundational elements of effective marketing communications.

Peripheral vision is processed with lightning speed

There are ample studies that scientifically measure the brain’s response time to an object detected in the peripheral vision. For example, applying functional neuroimaging (MEG) for mapping brain activity response time, participants were exposed to images in their peripheral visual field[iii]. The brain reacted within 80 milliseconds of latency (lapsed time). This response time is far too fast to be considered a conscious response processed through focal/overt attention.

The mostly unchallenged scientific research concludes that ‘Our visual processing of and attention to objects and scenes depends on how and where these stimuli fall on the retina.’[iv] Humans have a divided visual system distinguished by conscious processing of central or focal vision and non-conscious processing of peripheral vision. If you accept that peripheral vision is processed non-consciously then you accept that peripheral vision is processed without overt attention or cognition which means the second input of teaching the prospective market something distinctive about the brand is absent unless you have captured focal attention.

Now ask yourself, why is this distinction between focal and peripherical attention rarely called out at marketing conferences. Perhaps the vendor did not have the technical capability to distinguish between the two (the respondent needs to be relatively close to the camera to judge focal attention) or perhaps lumping focal and peripherical attention into a single bucket enables the vendor to dramatically exaggerate the level of “attention” advertising receives.

As will be explored next, this is a critical point in the discussion of effective marketing communications. Exhibit One draws from the architectural literature and illustrates the divided nature of vision.

Peripheral vision is processed without overt attention or cognition
Attention part 1 300x236

Exhibit One – The two attention processors[v]

Marketing Objectives and Attention

As a brand owner, if as an outcome of your marketing communications you are expecting to attract new customers to your brand, you will certainly be relying on conscious learning. For example, price, benefits, features, location and so on. In that case, you should not consider covert attention arising from peripheral vision as a facilitator of such an outcome. It might be collectively called “attention” but its not the kind you need for the job before you.

If attracting new buyers is the brand’s marketing goal, then marketing communications will need to teach prospective buyers the rational reasons to believe. That means cognition and that means focal, overt attention.

Robert Heath addressed overt attention as it relates to advertising effectiveness.

‘If you are doing a lot of thinking about an ad then you are using a high level of attention, and if you are doing very little thinking about it, you are using a very low level of attention. For this reason, level of attention equates to the amount of conscious learning we are doing.’[vi]

Heath’s point was that cognitive processing (thinking, perception, learning) is part of the necessary building blocks of advertising effectiveness.

Overt attention has three settings

Typically, viewing environments contain endless visual stimuli and so, the eye movement search is continuous. Once humans have given overt attention to an ad, visual processing resources can be cognitively allocated to hold that overt attention. However, giving attention to a single object, does not preclude our sight’s reactivity (rapid movement of the eye known as saccade and micro-saccades) to choose something else to give overt attention to. Attention is a continuous wrangle between spatial and object vision.

When it comes to marketing communications, attention is ordinarily fleeting. It is mighty unusual for the average Jane to give sustained attention to an ad. Cognition is non-divisible. As Captain “Sully” Sullenberger explained[vii], when it comes to cognitive processing, “multi-tasking is a myth.” Indeed, inattentional blindness is a timeless and amusing illustration of this.[viii] Inattentional blindness is when something in plain sight does not gain focal attention because your cognition is elsewhere.

Attention is a continuous wrangle between spatial and object vision

The overt attention “switch” has three settings. That is, off, on and strobing. Consistent with the Robert Heath definition, attention is held, the switch is on. Low attention is fleeting, bouncing in and out like a strobing light but remaining, intermittently cognitive.

Often in marketing communications the best you can hope for is attention starting “on” and moving to flickering and finishing on. And in those fleeting moments of cognition, the consumer learns the intended message sent.

All in all

Part One of this article is about attention as it relates to the human processing of marketing communications.

My university-based marketing education well and truly pre-dated the first ever neuroscience symposium. Since then, reading Antonio Damasio, Robert Heath, Steve Grossberg and others taught me that my formal marketing education was grossly incomplete. Indeed, some of the marketing heuristics I was taught have turned out to be plainly wrong. In other cases, heuristics have been transformed into scientific knowledge.

One thing is certain, to remain contemporary marketers should look to the objective findings from neuroscience if they need to be reminded of the importance of attention and not rely on conference speakers from self-interested vendors.

Of course, there is a relationship between attention and effective advertising just as there is a relationship between a car engine starting and fuel consumption. However, having fuel does not guarantee you will arrive at your destination. Fuel consumption is a necessary ingredient as is skilled navigation and driving competency. Attention is a precursor to both effective and ineffective advertising. It is not attention that guarantees effective communications although, an absence of attention does ensure that rational messaging will not be learnt.

So, in a nutshell, if you do not gain overt attention then there can be no cognition linked, conscious learning. Might that explain your poor brand awareness and low brand linkage?


  1. Roberts, K,. CMOs: Stop obsessing about where you say it, WARC, November 2021
  2. Emotion: the Mandatory of Marketing Part Three: Application,
  3. Bayle DJ, Henaff MA, Krolak-Salmon P. Unconsciously perceived fear in peripheral vision alerts the limbic system: a MEG study. PLoS One. 2009 Dec 9;4(12):e8207. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008207. PMID: 20011048; PMCID: PMC2785432.
  4. Rooney, K., Focal and Ambient Processing of Built Environments: Intellectual and Atmospheric Experiences of Architecture
  5. Op. cit. Rooney, K
  6. Heath R, Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising, @p55, ISBN: 978-0-470-97488-9 March 2012
  7. Captain Sully's Minute-by-Minute Description of The Miracle On The Hudson, Youtube. March 2019
  8. selective attention test, Youtube. March 2010