The Three Keys That Unlock Attention

How do you hold your audience’s attention? In his new film, Achtung!, which premiered at the IPA’s EffWorks Global event this week, System 1’s Orlando Wood proposed a simple answer. The most effective, attention-winning video advertising is advertising which foregrounds Character, Incident and Place – that can be described by who is involved, what happens and where it is set.

But many video ads today – especially online – take a very different, and more direct, approach. They put the product upfront, look directly at the viewer, tell them what to think, and maybe even make them an offer. No characters – often only products or things. No incidents – just voiceover and on-screen copy, with little sense of lived time. And no determinable place – short-cut montages and flat backdrops.

This type of advertising tends to assume two things.

First, it assumes that the viewer is already interested in the product – it relies on the promise of digital platforms to serve ads to the right person at the right time. In fact, the increased ability to target audiences with video advertising today may well have had something to do with the rise of this kind of ad.

Second, it assumes that in today’s digital environment that the product’s ‘relevance’ will be sufficient to hold a viewer’s attention.

You might call this the “full frontal” approach to advertising – show it all and show it right away. This type of advertising tends to be flatter, more literal and more abstract – more left-brained, as Orlando might describe it. In his new work with the IPA Databank, he shows that this kind of advertising is very effective at driving direct effects or web traffic. And this is perhaps because, as can be observed by their first frames, these ads tend to look a great deal like billboards, priming the brand to those most receptive to it.

But this type of advertising only fulfils a fraction of advertising’s true promise, and only a fraction of online advertising’s true promise. Because his research with the IPA’s Databank also shows something else; that it is the online video campaigns with right brain features that drive large market share or profit gains.

Drawing on the work of Iain McGilchrist, Orlando describes the five different types of attention that we bring to bear on the world. Of the five types of attention psychologists broadly agree on, four are dealt with by the right-brain. The right brain is responsible for sustained attention; it also handles alertness – the ability to notice things that are unusual or break patterns; and the more active vigilance – keeping an eye out for signs of something you anticipate might happen. The evidence is – perhaps appropriately – split on how divided attention lateralises – but here too there is strong evidence that it is dealt with by the right brain. Only focused attention is dealt with by the left brain.

The brash, ‘full-frontal’ style of advertising, is created to play to the left-brain’s attentional preferences – and assumes that focused attention is being brought to bear on the ad. But to elicit an emotional response and sustain attention, we need to appeal to the right brain – and that means featuring the living, something unexpected, in something approaching the real world. This means rewarding vigilance by giving us strong and engaging characters whose fates we anticipate; rewarding alertness by presenting the unexpected; and rewarding sustained attention by immersing us in a scene that unfolds in a determinable place.

In the book Lemon, Orlando demonstrates that ads with features that appeal to the right-brain (like a strong sense of place or an unfolding story) are better able to elicit an emotional response and therefore more likely to be effective than those with ‘left-brain’ features (like abstracted or flat locations, or obtrusive on-screen text). In Achtung!, Wood expands the analysis to ask – are right-brained features in ads also more effective at holding attention too?

The answer is yes – they are. While the “focused” left-brained ad drives direct effects as part of a targeted campaign, for major broad and long business effects (like profit gain or market share gain) you are better off adopting a style that incorporates right-brain features. With marketers increasingly asking, ‘can you build a brand with online video?’, Orlando’s new work provides an answer. It shows how market share and profit gain come more easily when you draw on these right-brained features. This kind of ad is more likely to elicit an emotional response and so more likely to sustain attention, which is so critical in online environments.

The list of right-brained elements is long – but Orlando seeks to synthesise it for us and describes three core elements of highly effective market share-building online video campaigns: Character – who is involved? Incident – what happens? Place – where is it set?

And when you reflect on many of the most effective video ads from the 1960s to the 2020s, you’ll be struck by how many of them can be described by answering those three questions. Most great stories can be described by them too. As Mark Twain, who knew a thing or two about getting people’s attention, put it over 100 years ago, “[The writer] merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows the selected locality, and he trusts that he can plunge those people into incidents with interesting results.”

Character. Incident. Place. Ask yourself whether your campaign can be described by those three features, and whether your brand runs through each. If it can, then your chances of getting attention, keeping attention, and profiting from attention will be a great deal higher. Relevance isn’t enough, you have to entertain.

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