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When people pay attention to video ads and why


What costs have increased the most for US companies over the past 25 years? It’s not health care costs or taxes, or even executive pay. It is advertising, or more precisely the cost of attracting consumers’ attention, which, according to my calculations, has risen seven to nine times in real terms since 1990.

When demand exceeds supply, prices rise. The marketer’s demand for consumer attention has increased dramatically in recent years with the proliferation of new brands and products (remember when there was only one variety of oreo?). However, the range of attention can only (by and large) grow with population growth. At the same time, consumers have been given all sorts of tools to avoid paying attention to ads, including DVRs, ad blockers, and mobile devices that allow them to focus their attention on content of their choice.

It is a surefire thing that big companies ‘ad-to-sales ratios have risen accordingly over the same period, and the rising cost of attracting consumers’ attention has led smaller, deep-pocketed businesses to start mass media advertising with promotions, Discounts and freebies are becoming their preferred way of informing consumers about new products.

In this highly competitive environment, companies need to understand best practices in order to attract and retain consumer attention. My research suggests that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach – most importantly, tailoring advertising to the appropriate context. The positive side is that the amount of attention consumers are likely to pay to advertising regardless of brand or product is fairly predictable. For example, in the cinema, people tend to pay a lot of attention to ads and trailers. On the other hand, media multitaskers – for example, people who watch TV with a computer on their lap – tend to be less attentive. When they are young and have a cell phone by their side, they pay even less attention to it. Therefore, the best content for ads will depend on the context in which viewers are exposed to those ads and the predicted level of attention they are likely to receive.

Here are four examples of video ads that have succeeded in part because they were used in the appropriate context.

Let’s take a closer look at these examples.

  1. When your audience is trapped.

Advertising content has to do two things – engage and convince. Advertising traditionally spent more time on the latter – in the pre-Internet era, people accessed information about new products or brands primarily through TV advertising, so they were willing to pay sustained attention to promotional or informational content. With the ubiquity of on-demand information, this is no longer the case; In general, consumers today will pay much more attention to the content that is meant to entertain them. This applies equally to B2B and B2C target groups.

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However, there are still exceptions to this rule. Imagine a movie theater where consumers are relatively trapped. Sitting in a darkened room, leaving is inconvenient, and you are unlikely to have access to competing content (although even that is changing as norms against smartphone use in cinemas deteriorate). In this context, advertisers can expect their audience to be paying their full attention until the end of the commercial – so they can focus on persuading and spending more time conveying product information. Consider the following commercial for Samsung:


This ad does a great job of persuading by showing the user experience with the product (a voice and gesture activated television) in a meaningful environment where the actor is also watching movies. While there is no lack of entertaining content, it is also not afraid to explain exactly how the product is used, even to tell its advantages and to present the brand in a prominent manner.

  1. When your audience starts paying attention.

Unlike moviegoers, people who watch TV have many alternatives. They can switch channels, pick up their smartphone, head to the kitchen for a snack, or even take a break and then fast-forward through the commercials. In an experiment on the internet, I played a subsample of 88 video ads for various food and beverage products – and told participants that they could skip any ad they chose. I filmed the faces of the participants. Using an algorithm to measure their facial reaction, I was able to measure the time and intensity of emotional engagement that each ad evoked. I then asked the participants in the study to buy a confectionery product and was able to correlate their purchase decisions with the intensity of the respective advertising.

The following ad for Pepsi, Love Hurts, had the highest sales conversion rate, while it wasn’t the most appealing.

It’s a fun ad, and as such, unsurprisingly, it outperformed ads that didn’t generate a strong response from my study participants, who often chose to skip such ads before they were done. But, interestingly, it wasn’t the most entertaining advertisement in the bunch, either. It turns out that selling an overly emotional ad suffers – consumers focus on the content and fail to register the compelling information. There’s a sweet spot between being too boring and too entertaining and “Love Hurts” found it. Also note that after the first Pepsi Max brand reveal, the conversation begins. My research shows that entertainment presented after the brand is first advertised always improves the purchase, while entertainment presented in front of the brand always decreases it.

  1. When your audience doesn’t start paying attention.

It is a truism in advertising that good television commercials grab the audience’s attention in the first five seconds. But sometimes your audience won’t even look at your ad. Instead, you need to get their attention as the ad progresses – for example, when a TV is playing in the background during the normally busy “early evening” time, when a younger audience is the majority of the audience (they are die-hard multitaskers), or when your advertisement is played in the middle of a “pod” of commercials. This is exactly what this advertisement for Target Australia succeeded in doing.


The music is inviting. The pictures are colorful. And the use of stop motion animation makes it noticeably disjointed and artistic. Finally, the video casts a spell over you. Notice how it waits until the last second to provide information about the brand or product, and when it does, the information is minimal – the brand and URL for Target.

I studied the web browsing of 100,000 households every second and found that immediately after this ad ran, the Target Australia website saw a 30 percent increase in traffic in less than a minute and lasted for a full two minutes. Given that a typical ecommerce site like Target has a 2% to 9% conversion rate from visitors to sales, this increase resulted in a quick and sizeable return on investment.

  1. When your audience is completely distracted

There are some contexts where the audience’s attention is so divided that trying to capture them is a foolishness. Display advertising in Times Square in Manhattan is a good example – only brands that are already strong have a chance to make an impact in such a noisy environment, and likely it will be a weak one. However, in such cases there may be a solution – viral advertising, but not the standard method.

Few categories have commercials that are skipped as often as batteries. People just don’t care about what many perceive to be a commodity. Nonetheless, Duracell managed to turn a battery ad into a viral sensation with almost 16 million views on YouTube alone (12 million in just two weeks). My research shows what a jackpot this was: Less than 0.6% of video ads get 1 million or more total views on YouTube.


The ad has a few things against it. It starts slowly. It shows the Duracell brand early on (after just 30 seconds!). And it plays Kevin Jorgeson, a mountaineer unknown to most Americans. How did Duracell do it? A viral ad can be “constructed” by targeting influencers, well-connected bloggers, internet personalities, and opinion leaders in order to be the first line distributor for their online audience. Obviously, this has a price compared to the post and bet of pure organic viral marketing. But the advantage is that these influencers get the “snowball” rolling. Indeed, this approach turns viral from earned media to paid media.

In the case of the Jorgeson ad, Duracell put the ad in the hands of mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts to motivate them to distribute the video to their friends and followers. Mountaineering has a strong culture with trusted sources of expertise. If you get a video shared by one of these influencers, you’re probably more open to the 90 seconds, even after seeing a Duracell brand after a third.

For advertising to work, it needs to attract attention before doing anything else. This task is much more complicated and expensive than in the past because people’s attention spans are shorter and more brands are competing for attention. Today’s marketers need to think in terms of a two-step model: entertain people to get their attention; only then address your advertising needs by providing relevant information. Marketers should start their media buying strategy by understanding the attention potential of each media and context – only then will they know how much time and effort they need to devote to each step.


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