ARF’s Stipp: We Need to Study Inattention As Well As Attention

Long-time advertising researcher Horst Stipp left his lengthy tenure at NBC for the opportunity to bring his expertise to the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF), where he has been VP, Research & Innovation Global & Ad Effectiveness since 2011. He shared with Realeyes why creative is the dominant determinant of an advertising campaign's success, and why attention measurement is the next iteration of neural research. He also discussed why “inattention” is important as well, a discussion point advanced by MediaScience’s Dr. Duane Varan at a recent ARF salon.


Why is attention important? Obviously, the ARF just had a big event around attention with a lot of dialogue. What is it about this moment in time that makes it the key topic in advertising?

There are a couple of reasons. There are several new scalable measures that address really important issues, like how to measure attention in advertising.

Another reason why there is a lot of interest is that there are questions about the quality of the measurement, and what's the best way to use these measurements?

For example, there is the question: Should attention become a currency or at least a supplemental currency? Or should we focus more on using attention measurement to improve creative?



The [ultimate question to ask is] do our measures predict better purchase intent, better brand opinion, and positive reaction to ads? They have collected a lot of research that shows attention indeed does that.



And what is it about this moment in time? The event was called ATTENTION METRICS: Moving from Laboratory to Field Applications, so why now?

Practically every campaign now, in multimedia and on different platforms, works differently. There's a strong desire to get more information to understand how the ads are working.

There was the assumption, which I think we have confirmed, that attention levels are different on different platforms. So, there's a desire to know more about that [difference]. The research community has picked up on that and developed a number of methodologies.

When I started at the ARF just ten years ago, the big topic was neural. And neural did some of the things in the lab that the attention measurement is doing right now. But those [neural] measures are quite expensive and not particularly scalable. sThe emergence of more scalable methods is a really big advantage.

Now let me be candid about my biases: I've been working in research all my life. One of the reasons I joined the ARF after spending my career at NBC in research was that the ARF was really committed to quality research.

There is this interesting balance; If it turns out that the best method to find out if an ad resonates is so expensive and so impractical that you can’t really use it in practice, you really have to make a compromise.

You have to find a method that is practical and affordable, and still works well. So, for example, in the neural area, there's general agreement that FMRI is the most valid, best methodology available, but it would cost like tens of thousands for every single commercial, and there aren’t enough FMRIs out there to do this. So, the development of scalable methods, you know, really is a good thing. Several companies in the field have developed a variety of different methods, all striving to optimize their product.

However, as you know from the ARF event, our members have a great interest in taking a closer look at exactly how good these measurements are, what are the pros and cons, and what might be missing?

So, one point you can raise is that most attention measurement does not take audio into consideration, but we know from research that audio does play a role in video commercials. Another issue is there are certain shortcuts when you do things with AI and when you do things in a more scalable way.

Some companies just measure eyes on attention. We know when you watch, you're processing the information or being emotionally affected, and that creates a positive effect for the advertising.

If you want to know about engagement, some companies like Realeyes do that with facial recognition. Facial recognition works really well for humor and disgust. However, very often people do not show much, if any, facial response when they watch advertising or anything else, for that matter. There's a lot going on inside the heads, but it doesn't translate into a change in their facial expression.

I am personally very hopeful and feel very positive that this kind of examination further increases the level of quality [in attention measurement] and is good for the industry. Because, as I said, it is the very beginning.

The promise of this measurement to move forward and be a better tool is quite important because it really gets to the hard question of what advertisers want to find out: does my ad capture attention and emotion? Is there going to be a positive response to my ad, because, as the ARF has shown by viewing research for fifty years, there is nothing more important than good creative for emphasizing success.

There is nothing more important than creative. You can have the best media plan. But if your ads are crap, nothing is going to happen. Of course, if you have a really great ad, but you don’t reach your target group, that's no good, either.

But what happens? What happens much more often, and Bill Harvey made this a really good point, is a lot of advertisers are too focused on getting this stuff cheap, and the cheapest campaign is very rarely the best campaign. So, let's put more emphasis on identifying good creative and improving creative.


What's the best advice for companies and individuals who are just starting to focus more on attention measurement in advertising?

Well, I take the question as an invitation to make a shameless plug. We have looked at this issue at the ARF for quite some time. I've been quite fascinated by the topic. We’re interested in asking, ‘How do we use this measurement?’ And we focused very much on this discussion today on using it to improve creative. The other use, of course, is to identify an environment that delivers the best impact for a given commercial.

There is a lot of information out there. ARF members have access to all this information that the ARF has collected. Now, my plug is over. At the same time, to be fair, you can Google “attention measurement.”

My good friend, Dr. Duane Varan at MediaScience, an excellent researcher himself, has suggested that we should focus more on inattention rather than attention. I am very sympathetic to his point of view.

He’s saying: ‘here is the concept of attention; it's a little bit vague. What exactly do we mean by that?’ Some people would say, well, it means that somebody looks at it. No, it's more than that. Attention means you are really focused on [something]. [But there are different forms of attention], so he is saying that we know with certainty that if there is no attention there is no effect. So, let’s focus on that as opposed to attention, [which can mean many things].

The bottom line is do our measures predict better purchase intent, better brand opinion, and positive reaction to ads? They have collected a lot of research that does show attention does indeed do that.

If there is a positive correlation between most of these measures that are being offered in the marketplace, and outcomes for the ad, that is the bottom line, and that is what it's all about.

(This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.)