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TV's 'Attention Vampires': Babies, Hotties and Pop Songs

Part Two: How to Make TV Ads That Engage Viewers

By Published on . 1

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- That cute kid, that sexy lady, that car driving on a building: They all may look cool, but they could be the reason consumers don't remember your brand.
The Aflac duck was one standout for Lee Weinblatt, founder and CEO of PreTesting.
The Aflac duck was one standout for Lee Weinblatt, founder and CEO of PreTesting.


Interference
Engagement has become a pressing, yet little understood, goal of marketers, as the industry is about to switch the metric on which they base millions of dollars of ad time on TV. At the end of this month, Nielsen Media Research will release the first wave of commercial ratings, switching from program ratings. In this second story of our two-part series on "attention vampires," MediaWorks sat down with Lee Weinblatt, founder and CEO of PreTesting, to understand why he thinks many of the attention-getting devices used in ads interfere with the purpose of the commercial. Mr. Weinblatt has spent 34 years using eye movements to determine viewers' engagement with TV commercials.

In a similar vein to some of the findings of Starch Communication's "Myth of Consumer Engagement" study, which found that a consumer's engagement with a well-liked magazine and one's engagement with the ads within that magazine are not necessarily the same, it would seem that a consumer's engagement with TV commercial has little to do with the TV show it interrupts.

It's cluttered, not dead
"People claim traditional media is dead," Mr. Weinblatt said. "The one thing I can't understand is how we can get 61 million people to watch 'American Idol' and we are saying TV is dead. ... You can claim the problem is clutter, yet people still remember some commercials."

So, if the problem isn't TV and it isn't clutter, there must be an issue with the commercials themselves. According to Mr. Weinblatt, attention vampires are sucking viewers' attention away from the brand at hand.

Mr. Weinblatt's latest round of studies is based on tracking one particular type of eye movement. It is not enough, he claims, to look at eye movements, dilation or constriction. By examining the speed with which the eye vibrates while looking at something, Mr. Weinblatt can determine a viewer's interest -- or lack thereof. The faster the eye vibrations, the more a person is interested in what he is observing; the slower the vibrations, the more he is focused on another sense or internal thoughts.

"It has finally helped us understand what has been going on in a lot of the things a person cannot explain," he said. By looking at vibrations, Mr. Weinblatt could tell when viewers were watching the attractive actors in a commercial as opposed to, say, the car being promoted.

"On the other hand," he said, "where there was a plain Jane -- putting down the seats or finding something underneath the floorboard -- viewers were fixated on the feature; they not only had much higher play back of the feature, but even the name of the car."

Baby vampires
Contrary to popular belief, babies are the very worst vampires of all. "If you want to show the product bottle, if you want to show the key features, if you want to say 'Now with lanolin for easy sleep,' get the child off the screen. Otherwise, you are cutting your own throat. The [eyes and interest] are nowhere near the product. They are all over the kid," said Mr. Weinblatt.

As with the Starch studies, the key is keeping the commercial simple and keeping the product or benefit front and center -- make it the hero of the commercial, the attention grabber. Base jumping, beautiful people and running from a skunk may attract a viewer's attention, but only to those elements, not to the brands. This is why people have difficulty remembering the brands the commercials are supposed to be promoting. Herding cats during the Super Bowl, anyone?

"In 80% of the commercials we test, the product is not the hero and has very little to do with the attention-getting device," Mr. Weinblatt said.

Keep it short
Some of the worst attention vampires include popular songs, which can detract from the visuals altogether. Crazy visuals, however, can detract from a voice-over telling consumers why they should buy the product at hand. Long commercials, particularly ones for pharmaceuticals, tend not to name the brand and its key advantage until so late in the commercial, a consumer already has lost interest. Mr. Weinblatt's recommendation: "Use 15-second spots. Don't go into the abilities, because otherwise you have to put in the sleep-inducing warnings."

And if you do want to talk about key attributes of the product, paste the words up there and read them aloud for the consumer. It hits them in two senses at once and drives home the point, he said.

Who's getting it right? Aflac was one standout for Mr. Weinblatt. The duck, as a stand-in for the insurance company, writes checks and takes care of things, quite literally drawing attention to himself as the hero of the spot. It also didn't hurt when he shouted out the company's name every few seconds. The Apple vs. PC commercial campaign is another example: Apple is the hero in a very simple visual and verbal way.

Worst offenders
Some of the worst offenders include telecom and credit-card companies that have a lot of offer-explaining chatter behind loosely-related visuals. Verizon may be one of the few exceptions largely because it found a way to visually represent the strength of its network.

More information on PreTesting's studies can be found here.
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