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Use or ornament? Why people actually engage with ads

  • Date:

    18 September 2020

Use or ornament? Why people actually engage with ads

Mike Follett, Managing Director, Lumen Research

Why do people look at ads? I mean, like…ever? They don’t have to, and frequently, they don’t. At Lumen, our eye tracking data suggests that most people ignore most ads most of the time. Even if a desktop display ad is 100% viewable, we find that, on average, it will only get looked at 18% of the time, and if do look, they will, on average, engage for around a couple of seconds.  Other media are better at converting ‘opportunity to see’ into actual seeing, but nothing is perfect. People are very good at ignoring ads.

So the real question isn’t to understand what drives ad avoidance, but to understand how ads can earn attention in the first place.

In some senses, advertisers act as if we already know this. We know that you have to give people more than one opportunity to see an ad, which is why we buy ads on both reach and frequency. If your potential customer manages to evade your ads on Monday, then he or she has to run the gauntlet of the campaign on Tuesday and Wednesday as well.

And we should remember the law of big numbers: even if only a fraction of customers engage with your ads, billions of impressions served to millions of people will lead to hundreds of thousands of quality engagements that will have large and lasting effects on the memory structures. Everything counts in large amounts.

But we make a mistake as advertisers when we assume that once an ad is in front of someone, it will receive their undivided and concentrated attention. Ads do work, but that’s not how they work.

From the Lumen eye tracking data set, we have an increasingly clear understanding of what gets people to look at ads. The most successful ads are ‘worth looking at’. There is an implied value exchange – lend me you ears and I will tell you something worth hearing. Conversely, the ads that are most likely to get ignored are ‘neither use nor ornament’ (a phrase I heard a lot as a child).

Useful ads are timely, relevant and well targeted. I am not usually interested in car insurance, and so I ignore most car insurance ads most of the time (or at least I assume I do: it’s very hard to know what you didn’t look at). But come renewal time, I am suddenly in the market for the product, and the ads that I have been studiously avoiding suddenly become useful and worth ‘spending’ time with.

Ornamental ads are, on the other hand, worth looking at in and of themselves. They are entertaining, or funny, or beautiful, or emotive – I get something out of looking at them, even if I am not in market for the product right now.

We see the increase in propensity to spend time with ‘useful’ or ‘ornamental’ ads in our press advertising data. An analysis of 657 non-food retail ads in The Metro over the past seven years shows that amongst the general population, people spend on average 3.6 seconds with a full page ad. However, amongst people who claim to be ‘in market’ for the products and services advertised, the average dwell time rises to 8.8 seconds – this ‘excess’ attention being a clear indication that relevance matters.

Even amongst the ‘in-market’ readers, the increase in attention is driven by a small number of people giving a lot of time to the ads, suggesting that, at least for some in-market shoppers, they were ‘getting something out of the ads’.

So it seems that, sometimes at least, advertising really does ‘help me choose’ – people do search it out, especially in specialist publications such as magazines that combine particularly relevant content with relevant advertising. And in recessionary times, when price sensitivities increase and people are more considered about purchases, this ‘useful’ advertising is only likely to increase in preponderance.

Tabulating data on the impact of ‘ornamental’ advertising is harder as it requires subjective creative judgement. Who are we at Lumen to say whether one ad is creative or not? But what we do notice that is the ads that get the greatest amount of excess attention are also, often, the funniest or best designed. Take, for instance, this apology ad from KFC after The Great Chicken Shortage of 2018, which got noticed by almost every reader in the paper, and for an average 6.4 seconds – twice the norm:

Or Lidl’s cheeky takedown of Morrison’s rather convoluted price match procedure, which was again read by almost everyone in the study, for on average 9.3 seconds

In both cases, the brands have created something ‘worth reading’ and the readers have ‘invested’ their attention as a result.

There is a tendency to categorise ‘useful’ ads as direct response and ‘ornamental’ ones as brand ads. This is nonsense. To the consumer (and remember, he or she is the only person that really matters here), they are all just ads. David Ogilvy’s favourite DR ad ‘They laughed when I sat down at the piano…’) is very entertaining; the Rowan Atkinson Barclaycard ads did a great job for the brand and were packed with ‘useful’ product details. In the spirit of ‘bothism’, the best ads can be useful and ornate in equal measure.

But if we must persist in this unhelpful distinction, it should be noted that the mental availability generated by ‘brand’ ads probably amplifies the attention that subsequent ‘DR’ ads receive. In our analysis of the non-food retail ads mentioned above, we found that the ads some brands got an unfair share of attention, keeping all other things equal. DR ads from bigger companies, with larger store footprint and bigger brand advertising budgets got proportionally more attention than similar sized ads for smaller brands with smaller brand budgets – a neat confirmation of Andrew Ehrenberg’s ‘double jeopardy’ rule.

Ultimately, the attention data highlights an important truth about how people consume advertising: the advertiser is not in charge, the reader is. ‘People read what they like’, the great adman Howard Gossage once said, ‘Sometimes it’s an ad.’ We produce ads as if people are required to engage with our ads, but we have got it the wrong way round. Our customers do not owe us any interest – but we can instead earn it from them. When it comes to attention, we’re not in the command-and-control business. We are in the seduction business. And while we can’t give our customers any orders, if we get the seduction right, we be able to take one.

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