Data from attention specialists TVision and Lumen has shown that ads different media are better or worse at generating attention. You’ll get a lot more attention from your average TV ad than you will from your average digital display ad. This is the topic of Ebquity’s ‘Challenge of Attention report which you can download here.

But this isn’t the whole story. In fact, it may not even be half the story.

The role of creative design in gaining and maintaining attention to advertising is enormous. Smart media planning will enable savvy marketers to find ‘attention bargains’ but eventually these ‘attention arbitrage’ opportunities will evaporate. Everyone will know that there is ‘gold beneath the fold’, and so the price will change to reflect this improved information. Attention-grabbing creative, however, will always offer brands the possibility of gaining an ‘unfair share’ of attention.

What can brands do to win the battle for attention?

There are no hard and fast rules, as your creative will depend on your message and your brand. But remembering the reality of attention – that it is selective, that it is finite and that it is voluntary – will help.

·         Selective: Your ads have to fight for attention, not just against the other ads, but also against everything else that people could look at. Designing simple, visual ads that stand out from the page or the screen is key.

·         Finite: people’s attention is limited, with most ads in most media generating only a few seconds of attention. Fit your message to suit this ‘time budget’: shorter, simpler, more single-minded messages perform better than complex, busy ads. In general, advertisers have more to learn from the OOH industry than the CRM industry.

·         Voluntary:  people don’t have to look at your ads, and frequently they don’t. Investing time and resources into developing ads that are worth watching is not being fussy or precious, but good business sense.

One simple way of ensuring that you stick to these principles is to test your ads in context.

Most ads are tested in isolation, with participants forced to sit through the whole thing and then offer their opinions afterwards. The problem is, as Alan Hedges pointed out almost fifty years ago, that this almost never happens in reality. While ads are made in isolation, and tested in isolation, they are always seen in context.

The key question that brand managers should be asking of any ad is this: will it advert the attention of my audience? Ads should be designed for attention, and then tested for attention. Because, as Bill Bernbach once said, ‘if no one notices your advertising, everything else is academic.’  

The first and last and most important assumption when it comes to developing advertising is this: don’t assume attention, earn it!