TV ads may be more effective if we pay less attention

Viewers pay less attention to creative television advertisements, shows new research from the University of Bath, but may make themselves more vulnerable to the advertiser’s message.

The findings overturn the long-held assumption within the advertising industry that ads with high levels of emotional content encourage viewers to pay more attention.

The study, published in the Journal of Advertising Research, used an eye-tracking device to measure the real-time attention paid to a range of adverts with different levels of emotional content.

The adverts were embedded in an episode of the sitcom Frasier and participants were unaware that advertising was the subject of the research. 

Results showed that viewers paid less attention to likeable, creative adverts, and more attention to factual information-giving adverts, even when they didn’t like them. 

Dr Robert Heath, from the University’s School of Management, who led the research team, said: “There has been a lot of research which shows that creative TV ads are more effective than those which simply deliver information, and it has always been assumed that it is because viewers pay more attention to them.

“But in a relaxed situation like TV watching, attention tends to be used mainly as a defence mechanism. If an ad bombards us with new information, our natural response is to pay attention so we can counter-argue what it is telling us. On the other hand, if we feel we like and enjoy an ad, we tend to be more trustful of it and therefore we don’t feel we need to pay too much attention to it.

“The sting in the tail is that by paying less attention, we are less able to counter-argue what the ad is communicating. In effect we let our guard down and leave ourselves more open to the advertiser’s message.

“This has serious implications for certain categories of ads, particularly ads for products that can be harmful to our health, and products aimed at children.

“The findings suggest that if you don’t want an ad to affect you in this way, you should watch it more closely.” 

The research was carried out in conjunction with Dr Agnes Nairn, Professor of Marketing at EM-Lyon Business School and Research Fellow at the University of Bath’s School of Management, and Dr Paul Bottomley, Distinguished Research Fellow at Cardiff University’s Business School.

Dr Heath is a Chartered Marketer, a fellow of the Market Research Society, a fellow of the European Advertising Academy and a member of the Global Future of Advertising Advisory Board.

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