Reversing the decline in advertising effectiveness

To create memorable advertising that builds brands, the industry must capture the ‘broad-beam’ attention of audiences; for that to happen, marketers must shift their focus – they must look out, says Orlando Wood, Chief Innovation Officer at the System1 Group.

Advertising has always battled for attention. But what if there were more than one type of attention? And what should we be doing as advertisers to capture it today?

This is something I seek to answer in my new book, Look out (IPA, 2021). Like my earlier book, Lemon (IPA, 2019), it draws on the pioneering work of psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist, perhaps the foremost authority on the attentional preferences of the two hemispheres of the brain (left and right) and how they attend to the world.

McGilchrist describes the five types of attention psychologists broadly agree on and how they relate to the two brain hemispheres. The right-brain brings a broad and vigilant kind of attention to bear on the world (alertness, vigilance, sustained and divided attention), and is alert to what is ‘out there’ at the ‘edges of our awareness’. It presents the world to us, and passes anything of interest to the left hemisphere, for it to bring narrow-beam attention to bear. Broad-beam attention seeks to comprehend, to understand context – it is alert to the living and to new things; narrow-beam attention apprehends – it seeks to abstract, to control and manipulate, and views things in terms of their utility. These two different types of attention – broad-beam and narrow-beam – have profoundly different implications for creative style.

The two ways in which advertising works might be said to mirror these two types of attention. Brand-building advertising necessarily assumes in the viewer little or no inherent interest in the product or brand, instead, it seeks to create interest in the brand. It achieves this by capturing our broad-beam attention and lodging the brand in memory through emotional response. Once the brand-building task has been done, activation advertising – often created for a narrower target in the buying window – can nudge an audience towards a purchase. This kind of advertising typically assumes that the audience already has an inherent interest in the brand and therefore has a narrower (often product-centric) focus.

What is the role of advertising today? In our technologically disrupted world, where companies are increasingly moving online, brands risk losing both physical and mental availability. So, a certain kind of advertising must come to the fore: brand-building advertising. The problem is that advertising tends to be made increasingly for narrow-beam, rather than broad-beam, attention today. There is also a sense that brand-building skills are being lost.

In Look out I describe the kinds of features in video ads that appeal to the broad-beam attention of the right-brain (such as spontaneous expression in the face, dialogue, music) and features that are more associated with narrow-beam attention of the left-brain (facial frontality or the ‘stare’, abstraction, close-up product shots, words on the screen). I look at the prevalence of these features over time, and their relationship with audience attention and business outcomes, which tells us three important things.

Ads with “right-brain” features are more successful at capturing attention. Right-brain features are more prevalent in ads that capture broad-beam attention and are also more associated with an emotional response.

Ads with “right-brain” features establish lasting business effects. Right-brained or broad-beam attention campaigns on the IPA’s effectiveness Databank are much more likely to establish the lasting business effects of profit gain, share gain, sales gain, and they do this by raising brand salience and establishing brand trust.

Ads with “right-brain” features have been in decline. Right-brain features for broad-beam attention have been in decline in TV ads over the last 30 years (UK data); less effective left-brain features, associated with narrow-beam attention, are now at their highest level. Advertising (and also creatively-awarded advertising) is also not as funny today as it was a decade ago, even though humour is a highly effective creative strategy.

Why is this happening?

The changing features of advertising today are a canary in the coalmine for culture more broadly. Technological disruption changes habits of thinking. We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us. The technological world we have created with its devices, apps, algorithms, and goal-orientated rewards has narrowed our attention. The problem is that when our attention narrows, we turn inwards; we become fearful and aggressive. Looking at two other periods of technological disruption and subsequent upheaval I show how similar changes can be seen in the art of those historical periods too: an emphasis on the ‘stare’, symmetry, abstraction, instruction, the adversarial stance, and an escape to fantasy.

But brands and advertisers can work against these trends. And I believe they should, especially as the evidence is that it’s the smart thing to do for business. Brands that seek to attract the broad-beam attention of their audiences will reap commercial rewards. That means advertising with wit and charm, with human vitality – advertising that entertains. Advertising, to put it another way, that looks out.

About Author: Orlando Wood is Chief Innovation Officer at the System1 Group, Honorary Fellow of the IPA, and author of Lemon and Look out.

Courtesy of World Federation of Advertisers

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