Advertising’s mis-understanding of time: Brands Need a First-Second Strategy PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 21 March 2021 20:55

By Greg Stuart

Nike’s incredible and epic two-minute commercial starring Colin Kaepernick won the 2019 Creative EMMY in September, marking another accolade this year for a high-profile commercial running more than a minute. It’s evidence that while scurrying for answers to short attention spans, many marketers are also relying on longer ads to introduce compelling narratives.

The logic is that a fuller narrative cements a complex brand proposition. At Cannes this year, the research chief for one of the world’s biggest advertisers told me that he believes that “people need to watch the full commercial as it was created, period!”  

My response: The full story is worthless if people turn away in the first second.

I say this because the world’s first research on how the human brain responds to digital advertising, particularly mobile, finds that the majority (67%) of ads are seen and registered in just 4/10th of a second. What’s more, people experience initial attraction and repulsion impulses within the same amount of time and they reject ads faster than they embrace them during these initial milliseconds. This is particularly true of video ads, which generate a stronger emotional response, earlier.

To determine how soon an ad registers in the brain, Neurons Inc. and MediaScience (commissioned by the Mobile Marketing Association in conjunction with the Advertising Research Foundation under AAF’s Radical Transparency Program) measured the brain activity of nearly 1,000 people. They gauged brain activity at 20 millisecond (2/10ths of a second) intervals, tracking both attention and cognition (processing of information and approach or avoidance). Then they measured participants’ responses to the first three seconds of ads that had proven effective or ineffective (via other brand research measurement methods). They found that the overwhelming majority of ads that failed started alienating viewers well before the first second had elapsed.

As a result, advertisers need to change there orientation toward attention – standards don’t dictate it, consumers award or deny it instinctively. That’s why one of the worst (research-proven) media buying strageies is to pay only for a full completed video view. (hint: effectiveness doesn’t go up commensurately with time viewed, so the premium paid for it actually reduces ROI.)

To win attention, we must turn the brand story arc on its head. Marketers need a first-second strategy. And we probably need it across all media. 

With a first-second strategy, media becomes a creative and scientific exercise more than ever. It turns out that thousands of years of human evolution have created a number of predictable shortcuts in the human brain and as a result, a common response to certain stimuli.

For example, we react to colors and shapes before we register an image (a person, animal, or object) as a concept; so, an ad’s stopping power happens in the initial blur. We react emotionally to a moving image faster than we do to a static one; and a hint of motion (e.g., light trails) will speed up recognition of a static ad.

And images of people – faces, body parts, or icons shaped like bodies – get our attention immediately. Even incomplete faces pique our instinctive curiosity. Our brains have developed the ability to detect eyes more easily, a mechanism that scientists call the Eye Direction Detector (EDD). The implication for creative is that when eyes are visible, the direction of the gaze sends a message, either demanding attention or directing attention to another visual element.

After seeing this research, Hilton CMO Kellyn Kelly (and MMA Board member) rounded up her marketing team to rethink how they shoot the first second of video ads. “We have to create content differently because people are bombarded with it,” she told the audience at The Mobile Growth New York summit in July.

At a granular level, the 30 frames that comprise a second of video now create the most critical communication in a campaign. For the audiences that brands depend on, that communication doesn’t happen in an agency screening room or the jury room at Cannes. It happens wherever, whenever people are glancing at their screens during the myriad experiences and emotions that fill their days.

This calls for a different approach to focus groups and creative testing – one based in the science of how our brains process visual imagery. It also calls for a change in mindset – from buying ad exposure time and hoping for attention to designing creative to earn that attention in the first second.

We need to rethink our precepts of how time matters according to the way our brains react to advertising. We have far less time than we thought, and we sure as hell can’t “standards” our way to success. Don’t get me wrong, standards are important (I lead the writing of many of them), but they are not about effectiveness.  Increasingly, how we start determines whether we finish.

Greg Stuart is CEO of the MMA.

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