Can’t keep my eyes off you: ATTENTION! Part 2

By Posted 28 May 2024

Part One of this article addressed attention as it relates to the visual processing of marketing communications. Different kinds of visual attention are important for different aspects of marketing communications. Overt visual attention is the foundation stone of cognitive based learning whereas, peripheral vision is non-conscious, sometimes pre-cognitive and has a role in activating emotional processing.

When it comes to our sense of sight, for cognition linked to conscious learning to occur, advertising must be processed with focal, overt attention at either high (a lot of focal attention) or low (fleeting focal attention) attention. The marketing communication paradigm is to disrupt the consumer to gain conscious attention and then teach rational reasons to believe. Ads “viewed” covertly with peripheral vision do not lead to conscious learning, (bearing in mind, other senses such as hearing or smell also ignite cognition. (We discuss other senses in Part Three.)

Now onto Part Two, specifically, examining the populist discourse relating to visual attention.

The two processors of attention

Karen Nelson-Field PhDi has been at the vanguard of the re-emergence of attention as an area of interest for marketers. Her highly publicized work can be divided into two broad fields. Her main endeavor has been developing a mechanism for informed media buying. The secondary Nelson-Field findings have focused on the role of attention in bringing about efficacious marketing communications. It is this secondary area that is the focus of this article.

Karen Nelson-Field’s refers to peripheral vision as “low attention.” This is an important distinction from past marketing literature. In Robert Heath’sii, work, he considers low attention as intermittent, overt attention or if you would prefer, flickering cognitive processing. To recap from Part One, 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.’iii

Heath’s point was that cognitive processing (thinking, perception, learning) is part of the necessary building blocks of advertising effectiveness. In contrast, Nelson-Field says low attention is viewing an ad with peripheral vision. Recall from Part One, if your ad is viewed peripherally, then you have not disrupted the viewer sufficiently to initiate focal sight and engage in cognitive based learning.

If your ad is viewed peripherally, then you have not disrupted the viewer sufficiently to initiate focal sight and engage in cognitive based learning

Covert attention arising from peripheral vision is useful for processing emotion but unhelpful for the cognitive elements of effectiveness – cognitive learning and the rational reasons to believe. According to Heath’s perspective, covert attention is not low attention. It is non-conscious attention unsuitable for cognitive-based learning although, central to emotional processing and memory.

Respected marketing scientist, Andrew Ehrenberg PhD (1926 –2010) believed that marketing should focus primarily on category buyers who don’t currently buy your brand, as well as very occasional buyers, and from this will come brand growth. If new buyers are the brand’s marketing goal, then marketing communications will need to teach prospective buyers the rational reasons to believe.

Attention is the foundation of learning. Cognitive processing begins with attention. If you were trying to change the trajectory of your brand by teaching the market, then “low attention” processing as defined by Nelson-Field (a mere peripheral gaze) would not result in cognitive learning.

Attention alone is NOT a good measure

Nelson-Field’s conclusions relating to the importance of attention in advertising effectiveness relies largely upon her reported relationship between gaze and the made-up measure, STAS (short time advertising strength) which according to Nelson-Field, may be used interchangeably with “sales uplift.” No evidence of predictive or construct validity of STAS is provided. Made up measure such as brand equity rarely correlate with changes in market share.

STAS compares the number of respondents who chose a brand after they were reminded of that brand to those who were not reminded. The difference in the laboratory results is attributed to seeing and not seeing the advertising exposure. Nelson-Field’s contribution is to capture via eye-tracking what sight was applied to the marketing communications using the classifications – no gaze, peripheral gaze, and fleeting to concentrated focal gaze.

Nelson-Field contends that all attention leads to incremental “sales” and more attention leads to more “sales.” Get attention, build sales; if that finding was so, could you imagine the deafening shouting amongst advertisers that would ensue! If the conclusion from the Nelson-Field laboratory experiment was simply, conscious, and non-conscious exposure to an ad boosts hypothetical choice, then the findings from Nelson-Field would be uncontentious. Recall here the apt analogy from Part One of putting petrol in a car and then claiming you had therefore, arrived at a destination.

Get attention, build sales; if that was so, could you imagine the deafening shouting amongst advertisers that would ensue!

Successful marketing communications is both a non-conscious and conscious chain reaction of falling dominoes, with each domino interdependent on the previous and the following dominoes (please do not treat this analogy too literally – cognitive assessment and emotional appraisal can indeed happen in parallel). Asserting that visual attention independent of creative impact, has a positive relationship to incremental sales is a surprising finding.

Nelson-Field refers to non-conscious processing as the ‘normative zombie state’ suggesting she might not have a complete appreciation of the power of emotion in detonating behavior and the role it plays in advertising effectiveness. Not to mention its role in homeostasis and controlling life itself.

Attention alone is NOT a good measure for effective advertising. Never was, never will be. A good scientific approach would NOT bring a univariate conclusion to what should be a multivariate investigation. A lot of dominoes need to fall before one could claim effective advertising resulting in “sales uplift.” Gaining attention is one of them however, attention alone, does not guarantee sales.

How findings are presented matters

The way the Nelson-Field findings are graphically presented (Exhibit One) may lead some to believe that “attention” is a continuous variable like age or height however, the way that Nelson-Field has characterized that data is categorical. The time an object spends in focal sight (Nelson-Field calls this “High Attention”) could be a continuous variable but curiously, is lumped together regardless of how long focal sight was held and therefore, is converted to a categorical variable. Regardless of focal vision being held for one second or the entire duration of the ad on screen, it is referred to by Nelson-Field as “high attention.” A respondent is classified as high attention even if they only looked at the ad with their focal vision for the most fleeting moment.

The exhibit shows that as attention moves from no attention to covert (“Low Attention”) to overt (“High Attention”), “sales” increases. The visual appearance of the exhibit certainly supports Nelson-Field’s contention that attention drives “sales” however Exhibit One is an incorrect depiction of the categorical data. The data is mistakenly presented as a continuous line rather than the conventional bar chart used for categorical data.

The data is mistakenly presented as a continuous line rather than the conventional bar chart used for categorical data
Screenshot 2023 07 25 132725 1024x589

Exhibit One – STAS and Attention Level

Exhibit Two is the correct way of depicting the categorical data. That is, how the ad was processed – no gaze, peripheral gaze or some focal gaze. Also, in Exhibit One instead of the actual numerical results, an index is calculated. It has to be said, the steep curve shown in Exhibit One that spans almost to the interception of the Y axis certainly looks like a strong positive relationship. I am uncertain of the justification for this however, removing the index and reporting the actual percentage change lift in choice (Exhibit Two) is perhaps the cleanest was to depict what the data is telling us.

Moving from not seeing the ad to seeing the ad in your peripheral vision results in a modest 11% improvement in in-survey brand choice. Moving from not seeing the ad to at least partly seeing the ad with focal sight lifts the prospect of in-survey choice of 15.5%.

Screenshot 2023 07 25 133011

Exhibit Two – Categorical depiction with percentage lift in in-survey choice

Based on the evidence provided by Nelson-Field, the conclusion that could be drawn is that being reminded of a brand in-survey, modestly improves the prospect of that brand being chosen in the same survey. If this is the argument Nelson-Field is relying on to convince those in the media fraternity that attention is important, then she would be far better off teaching them the fundamentals of neuroscience and information processing.

All in all

Marketing communications needs to elicit an emotion associated with the ownership or consumption of the product or service and associate that emotion to our brand. The second element is to teach the prospect something distinctive about the brand. This is the rational, reason to believe, behavioural drivers. Teaching requires the advertisers to firstly disrupt the non-divisible, effortful cognitive processing. While Heath posits the level of attention equates to the amount of conscious learning, Nelson-Field describes it as the kind of gaze an ad receives.

One thing is certain, marketers should look to the objective insight from neuroscience if they seek to understand the importance of attention as it relates to the different kinds of visual attention and the implications for different aspects of marketing communications.


i. Nelson-Field, Karen. (2020). The attention economy and how media works simple truths for marketers. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan

ii. Heath R, Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising, ISBN: 978-0-470-97488-9 March 2012

iii. Op. cit. Heath R, @p55