Look to Your Left >>
Updated: Oct 11
Pulsing banners can put your clients through intense pain or sheer agony, distracting sounds are annoying and the idea to stoop so low as to combine both – to create a combination so abusive that it has a fair potential to cause epileptic seizure even to a completely healthy individual, is simply repulsive.
Is it even possible to catch your clients´attention without putting them through these inhuman practices?
Heavy ads rely on automatic responses that have helped the human species survive in the hostile wilderness: they directly attack our sensitive perception of sound and light. But we encounter tons of noisy and radiant stimuli in our concrete jungle so frequently that we have developed strategies to filter a substantial part of them. Advertising industry responds in a sly and artful way and tries to attract our attention with even brighter and noisier content. (Just turn on your TV and wait for any electronics store commercial. My favourite one features a man dressed like a horse with a mask.) The audiovisual flood relies on the natural components of our perception. You can imagine these mental warm-ups as an extension of the familiar patellar reflex. Gently tap the patellar tendon, which lies just below the kneecap,and the sudden kicking movement of the lower leg occurs – try to stop it just with the power of your thoughts. A similar reaction takes place in the brain. When designing an ad, you try to find an impulse that the human brain simply cannot ignore. Loud noise and flashing light are great candidates when attracting someone´s attention is the only goal in your sight - and you do not care so deeply about the bitter impression your brand creates.
The good news is that the human brain automatically responds to a variety of impulses, so there is no need to yield to invasive pressure. An elegant solution is hiding in something as simple as human eyes. The gaze plays an important role not only in gaining, but in guiding attention. By simply turning the model's face, we can target the reader's attention. It's a reflex. An automatic response. Wherever you look, I look.
Want to find out more?
Scroll down for articles I used for reference in this blog post. You can also try to pursue this topic: eye gaze; overt gaze; counterpredictive gaze; attention; automacity; spatial cueing.
Wherever you look, I look.
Ever since we opened them, our eyes have always suppolied us with a load of information about what is going on. Their input became so indispensable that we could hardly find limits to what we believe when we see it. What if I told you that a model on an ad is looking the opposite direction to where your information is hidden? Where would you look first?
A research team lead by Giovanni Galfano's (1) tested this primitive, blind confidence in an almost comical situation: the participant simply should look at a target picture on a screen. Before each attempt, Giovanni informed each participant where the target would have appeared. He stated that the gaze of a person preceeding the target picture would not be informative as to target location, so each participant knew the preceeding gaze was totally irrelevant to the task. They were instructed not to pay attention to the direction of gaze that preceeded the location of the target picture.
Even though the participants received 100% accurate information about where the target item would appear, the eye tracking software revealed that almost a third of them got it wrong. They first looked in the direction of the preceeding gaze cue. Let´s put that number into context: you know you must not look to the left, but your eyes slip in that direction every third attempt. Why? Evolutionary psychology offers us an elegant explanation: Humans are visual species, and sight carries vital information about danger, hierarchy, individual intentions, and community. Eye gaze is a form of communication. Eye gaze conveys rich information concerning the states of mind of others, playing an essential role in social interactions, and signaling internal states. Our visual attention is naturally modified by eye gaze.
Guiding your attention
A popular application of this principle was observed a few years ago in one of James Breeze´s articles. The blog he featured his post on has disappeared, but thanks to a friendly email conversation, I was able to bring these visuals back to life from his archive. James made visual maps of eye movements during his research for corporate purposes. Although his results do not bear the same stamp of guarantee as academic periodicals, they are still in accordance with academic research, and elegantly illustrate the application of knowledge outside the lab. He decided to compare two versions of an ad.
Type A: Baby faces at you.
Type B: Baby faces the ad text.
What did they find? If the child interacts with you, you tend to fix your attention on the child. If the child looks at the text, it leads your attention in the same direction. The gaze does not only catch our attention, it leads our attention. You basically follow the baby´s gaze.
Connect the dots
In 2006, a research team lead by Bayliss (2) found that objects that are looked at by other people are more likeable than those that do not receive much attention from others. It seems that a model facing your product automatically adds bonus points to your product characteristics.
Other reflexive social cues that guide our attention are gestures and head orientation (3).
Unlike other mental processes, aging does not affect the attentional shift in the gaze direction (4). With increasing age, our attention gets often dissipated and it is more difficult not to be disturbed by a competitive stimulus (5), leading attention by eye gaze seems to be a simple remedy.
Direct eye gaze (looking directly at the recipient as opposed to a secondary subject or text) improves face processing and increases arousal. We perceive direct gaze as a signal of approach and subsequent contact (6). It now makes sense that famous brand ambassadors always stare at us from the posters.
Our visual attention seems to be independent of facial expression and emotions, neither of which modifies the way we respond to eye gaze (7). Now it is important to keep in mind that attention is nothing but the first step to gaining a customer. Even though we follow an angry look as well as excited, it doesn´t mean that our opinion about the gazed-at product will remain the same too.
The eye gaze of schematic faces is even easier to follow (7). So emojis should be more effective than pictures of real people? Again, attention is not everything, we shouldn´t forget about the message we wish to convey. Arrows can also guide our attention (8). Look at the title again, did you look to your right or left? Our attention involuntarily follows arrows as well as human eye gaze. Although the agreement within academics is not unanimous (9), the research has provided a lot of support for this point. Unlike the biological gaze cues, arrows elicit an automatic attention shift probably because they are a well-learned symbol. We respond to symbolic directional stimuli in a similar way as we put our leg on a break when we see a stop sign on the road. Different nature, similar results: we look where arrows point.
Verbal instructions have not proven to bear such an effect on attentional shift (10). Too many people might still confuse the right and left side. In either case, it is better to avoid the word instruction right / left.
So.. now what?
Remember this next time you:
choose a picture for your new ads
shoot profile pictures for your professional website
look for a topic of your next ad campaign
choose an image for your Facebook post
create new leaflets
create brochures for your company
Watch and learn: Try to observe how eye gaze is used in
billboard and bogboard ads
leaflets and posters
Your final takeaway:
Eye gaze guides our attention. Where you look, I look. Eye gaze, gestures and head orientation do the trick.
Mesmerize your clients!
Let´s join our forces and create something audacious together. I will take care of the graphics, text, strategies; you just sit back, relax, and enjoy the result. How does that sound? Check out my portfolio and let me know what our next project will be:
(1) Galfano, G., Dalmaso, M., Marzoli, D., Pavan, G., Coricelli, C., & Castelli, L. (2012). Eye gaze cannot be ignored (but neither can arrows). Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(10), 1895–1910. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2012.663765
(2) Bayliss, Andrew & Paul, Matthew & Cannon, Peter & Tipper, Steven. (2007). Gaze cuing and affective judgments of objects: I like what you look at. Psychonomic bulletin & review. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03213926
(3) Langton, S. R. H., & Bruce, V. (1999). Reflexive visual orienting in response to the social attention of others. Visual Cognition, 6(5), 541–567. https://doi.org/10.1080/135062899394939
(4) Kuhn, G., Pagano, A., Maani, S., & Bunce, D. (2015). Age-related decline in the reflexive component of overt gaze following. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(6), 1073–1081. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2014.975257
(5) Harada, C. N., Natelson Love, M. C., & Triebel, K. L. (2013). Normal cognitive aging. Clinics in geriatric medicine, 29(4), 737–752. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cger.2013.07.002
(6) Macrae, C. N., Hood, B. M., Milne, A. B., Rowe, A. C., & Mason, M. F. (2002). Are you looking at me? Eye gaze and person perception. Psychological Science, 13, 460–464. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00481
(7) Hietanen, J. K., & Leppänen, J. M. (2003). Does Facial Expression Affect Attention Orienting by Gaze Direction Cues? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 29(6), 1228–1243. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-15220.127.116.118
(8) Tipples, J. (2002). Eye gaze is not unique: Automatic orienting in response to uninformative arrows. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 9, 314–318. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03196287
(9) Friesen, Chris & Ristic, Jelena & Kingstone, Alan. (2004). Attentional Effects of Counterpredictive Gaze and Arrow Cues. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 30, 319 - 329. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-1518.104.22.1689
(10) Hommel, B., Pratt, J., Colzato, L., & Godijn, R. (2001). Symbolic control of visual attention. Psychological Science, 12(5), 360–365. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00367