March 29, 2017

by Nigel Hollis

Watching a selection of ads from YouTube, Facebook and broadcast TV has made me wonder whether advertisers credit their audience with superhuman powers of attention and observation. So much gets crammed into a video it is sometimes hard to keep up and viewers can literally suffer from what is known as an "Attentional Blink".

By the time a video gets to YouTube, Facebook or the TV the people creating it know exactly what the video is trying to show and say. And often they seem to assume that viewers will react the same way. However, viewers have no idea what is intended and even if they attend to the video for more than a few seconds, may miss crucial moments that stop them understanding what was shown and said.

Recently I reviewed the findings from a test of the Smart ForFour ’Reverse Parking’ video. In a somewhat throwaway line I noted,

“Unfortunately agile was not a strong intuitive association because the scream scene tends to dominate the scenes devoted to parking.”

This could be a case of what cognitive scientists call an "Attentional Blink”. Rather than try to explain this verbally I suggest you watch Dom Twose, Kantar Millward Brown’s Global Director of Knowledge Management, demonstrate it for you.

So did you see how he did that? No. Because the human mind can ’choke’ on visual stimuli for up to half a second, which in the case of video ads can be long enough to cause viewers to lose track of salient points or even which brand is being advertised.

Normal viewers are not going to invest any significant amount of time or effort in trying to understand what a video is trying to tell them. Instead advertisers have to make sure that the impression delivered by an ad is as clear and easily digested as possible. Real-time facial coding like that used in Link can help identify moments when people might have suffered from an attentional blink. In the case of Reverse Parking facial coding revealed that the scream scene was accompanied by a peak in smiles and expressiveness. However, it is likely that this response was followed by a brief period of mental digestion, a sort of semi-conscious, ’Oh, I get it, he forgot the guy in the back was there’.

If this was a genuine attentional blink then it did not detract from the power of the ad in a significant way, people may not have appreciated the car’s agility or remembered the specific offer but they will likely remember that Smart now offers a four seater. Do you have any other examples of the attentional blink? Please share your thoughts.


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