Attention and emotion: chicken or egg?

Do emotive ads get more attention? That was the subject of a fascinating talk at last week’s Eff Week by Orlando Wood of System 1, which made use of some of Lumen’s data, and that of our friends at TVision.
Orlando classified hundreds of TV, YouTube and Facebook video ads as either ‘left brained’ (roughly speaking, rational and ‘useful’) and ‘right brained’ (again, very roughly speaking, emotional or ‘ornamental’). He then got TVision to see which of these ads held people’s attention the most when they appeared on TV, and Lumen to see if they caught and held people’s attention when they were inserted into people’s YouTube or Facebook feeds on their mobile phones.
The results point to the power of emotion. ‘Right brained’, emotive ads get more attention than their ‘left brained’ competitors (with the greatest effects been seen on TV, then YouTube and then Facebook). They are better remembered, thought to be more interesting, and have better results in market, according to the IPA Databank and Facebook’s Success Rate measures. It really is worth watching Orlando’s elegantly produced video to get the full story.
Emotive, ‘left brained’ ads seem to work harder because they are ‘worth’ watching. It’s an exchange of attention for entertainment. After all, no one has to watch your bloody advertising, and frequently they don’t. As soon as the option to skip an ad comes up, people usually take it. The trick is to get people to voluntarily give their time to hear your message. It’s a hard ask, but it’s a better strategy than trying to bore people into purchasing your brand.
Orlando’s work is interesting because of the consistencies across TV, YouTube and Facebook, but also because of the differences across these platforms. The uplifts seen in attention and response for ‘right brained’, ornamental advertising seem to be highest for TV and YouTube, and somewhat lower for Facebook. Why is this? And what does it tell us about the relationship between attention and emotion?
TV and YouTube (and, I suppose, cinema) are what you might call ‘sequential’ media: you have an ad, then the content, and then another ad. You don’t have to look at the ad, and on YouTube you can even choose to skip it. But while the ad is on the screen, there’s not much else to look at.
Facebook, and pretty much all other advertising options, are ‘simultaneous’ media. The ads have to compete for attention against other things that are on the screen or in the visual field at the time. In comparison to the ‘captive audience’ of TV and Youtube, Facebook users are free to choose what they look at, and it’s not always the ads.
Our data comparing how people watch ads on YouTube and Facebook is revealing on this point. If we just look at impressions that are technically viewable by MRC standards, we can see that around about 50% of YouTube desktop, and 20% of YouTube mobile ads get looked at for 5 seconds, but only about 15% of Facebook in feed ads reach this attention threshold. The average ‘eyes on’ dwell time for a Facebook video is 1.7 seconds, whereas the average YouTube ad gets 5.5 seconds dwell time.

These differences by media might help explain why the multiplier effects of emotive, ‘right brain’ communication are clearer to see on TV and YouTube than on Facebook. The former are storytelling media: they have a captive audience that are basically forced to watch the ads. The challenge is to get viewers to want to watch on past the skip button – and it’s here that emotive, ‘right brained’ characteristics help elongate attention.
Facebook advertisers face a different challenge, or rather, two challenges: they have to get people’s attention in the first place, and then they have to hold it long enough to deliver a message or a thought or a feeling. You can’t assume that everyone is sitting comfortably and eager to hear your thrilling tale of innovation in catfood or offers that must end on Thursday. First, you have to get people to stop, and then stare. As Mrs Beeton didn’t actually say: first catch your hare.
To have two objectives is usually to have one too many. And so advertisers have a choice: should they double down on their storytelling and make their Facebook ads too good to skip? Or should they assume that Facebook, for all its benefits, is not like TV, and instead simplify their ads to work effectively in the time available? Perhaps we should think of Facebook as a supercharged form of OOH, rather than a low wattage version of TV?
This doesn’t mean that all ads on Facebook have to be ‘left brained’, rational messages. There’s more to emotional, ‘right brained’ communications that slow-burn stories. Most of the ‘right brained’ characteristics described by are Orlando operate instantaneously: it’s about mood and tone and feeling rather than plot and narrative structure. And it doesn’t mean that Facebook should be a marketplace for useful, relevant offers (Nihar Das of Mediacom has an interesting perspective on this).
But we should cut our creative cloth to suit our (time) budget. Storytelling works when you have time to tell a story. But not everyone has the time or inclination to sit through our tale. The player should know when to exit the stage.