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The eyes have it: What do we see when we look at ads?

How do consumers look at advertisements? Most marketing textbooks advance the theory that looking at ads is a predominantly “dumb process,” driven by visual stimuli such as the size of the ad or the color of the text.

However, new research by researchers from the Netherlands and the University of Michigan uses eye-tracking software to reveal that it may be our goals – the tasks we have in mind – that drive what we pay attention to, even during a few seconds of ad exposure.

In the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, Rik Pieters (Tilburg University, The Netherlands) and Michel Wedel (University of Michigan) perform an eye tracking experiment on 220 consumers. The consumers are split into four groups, each with a different goal, and given free rein to view a series of advertisements.

The study is self-paced – that is participants are allowed to look at the ads for as long or as short of a time as they would like. Overall, the participants looked at the 17 target ads in the study for an average of about 4 seconds only – but with notable differences in focus.

Those asked to memorize the ad focused on both the body text and the pictorial representation of the product. Those asked to learn about the brand, on the other hand, paid enhanced attention to the body text but simultaneously ignored the pictorial.

This supports the Yarbus thesis that ad informativeness is goal-contingent. Differences in pupil diameter between ad objects but not between processing goals reflect the pupil’s role in maintaining optimal vision.

“The fact that even during the few seconds of self-paced ad exposure, attention patterns already differ markedly between consumers with different goals underlines the importance of controlling and knowing consumers’ processing goals in theory building and during advertising pre- and post-testing,” the researchers write.

In other words, the eyes are a reflection of consumer goals.

Suzanne Wu | EurekAlert!
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