Pay (for) attention

Todd Alchin
Mar 2023

Back in Australia, I used do a thing where I would ask a boardroom of people if they remembered whether the Green Man on the Walk/Don't Walk sign was above the Red Man, or the other way around. Without a photo, nobody really seemed sure.

This is how they look in Australia. (P.S. This is a crazy photo. Do you walk, or no?)

And then my whole thing was,

"Well, isn't that interesting. We've all crossed the street maybe a thousand times in our lives by now — why is it that we can't remember even the most basic thing about something we've looked at so often?"

I would make my point about exposure not being the same thing as attention, and it was a good spiel from a smug little upstart media guy not wanting to be all about impressions and cost, and more about context and quality. I had used their own inattentiveness to make a point about attention.

On reflection, it wasn't exactly fair. It makes no difference to a pedestrian which guy is on top — only that the red one is illuminated when you shouldn't walk, and the green when you should. So whether people retain this detail or not doesn't actually matter to their task of crossing the street. Maybe that's why nobody remembered it clearly.

What it really pointed out was how myopic we can be about the things we're exposed to dozens and dozens of times. (You know... like ads, or brands, or packaging, or product features inside software).

It was probably Byron Sharp who said:

"People know very little about the brands they buy, and even less about the ones they don't."

Which, of course, is true (if you ignore anecdotes and outliers).

What is also true is that all things being equal, people will choose a brand they're familiar with more often than one they're not familiar with. Of course.

But aside from casting doubt over the usefulness of the second half of every brand tracking presentation, it also makes the case for reach, scale, fame, higher share of voice, or higher budgets.

Because brands who create more noise (through ads, PR, word of mouth or by the number of retail locations) will attract more buyers, because people will be slightly more familiar and shift their bias toward them. We’ve known this since the 70s, in fact. 


This suggests only one lever to play with: reach. Not very nuanced, really. It suggests "buying more impressions" is enough to satisfy the laws of the marketplace.

Which is where attention comes in.

Attention is what pulls apart impressions and ensures that it's not simply that the biggest ad-budget wins. Because if that was always the case, we'd all know that by now.

Attention comes from at least two things. The media context/environment, and the message/creative. There is plenty of research into this. Here are some of the takeaways:

  • Attention is a better predictor of outcome than just viewability, by 3 times
  • High attention at low frequency beats low attention at high frequency
  • Different types of attention (focused vs fleeting) result in different outcomes
  • Building memories requires more attention than triggering memories, both of which are important, but different formats play different roles here (and don't cost the same)
  • An ad in the right context can be noticed nearly twice as much
  • Addressable TV ads perform better
  • Emotion is positively correlated to attention

In many ways, advertising is a numbers game. Most people don't know you. Many more will never buy from you. You need to become familiar to as many people as you can afford, who might one day buy you. (The effects of this are undeniable when you measure markets rather than individual people).

But it's also (still) an art. Just like we know the science of how colors mix together, it requires artistry to turn that into a painting that will move people. Although we know something about the science of consumer behavior and attention, it requires more than that to turn those impressions into market share.

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