A cluttered, noisy sensory landscape coupled with a continued drop in attention spans makes for a challenging environment for advertisers. Intent on finding the rare formula needed to reach and persuade overwhelmed, distracted consumers, the drive to test ads continues unabated. What’s needed though is a significant change in approach.

Much ad testing continues to quantify success based on a “30-second forced exposure”. But is this an accurate way to gauge effectiveness in reaching multi-tasking, multi-screen-watching John & Jane Q. Public? Should we expect customers to view our ads as they are minted? Fresh, clean, alone on the screen – the sole object of the creative director or copywriter’s attention? Or should we test them in their native environment and how they will in fact be viewed?

How Customers Size Up Ads in Cluttered Environments 

The vast majority of ads receive no more than a single eye glance (Wedel & Pieters, 2000). For example, think about the digital ads elegantly placed on our Facebook or Instagram feeds – which we rarely consciously focus on but which can, in fact, unconsciously impact us (Yoo et al., 2008).

To navigate the world, we cannot view everything in precise detail. Most ads never receive full attentional processing from the entire customer base. Rather, most customers size up ads quickly and automatically to determine if the ad merits more attention. To understand ad processing, we can break the appraisal process into two stages…

The Thin Slice: Before processing anything in detail, we grab the gist of the ad. This surface skim captures key global information such as the brand, objects, people and location. It is automatic, rapid, and largely nonconscious. Our brain can capture the gist of the ad subconsciously with little or no attention.

The Thick Slice: If an ad merits more attention, we deploy additional cognitive resources, which allow us to extract deeper details. The thick slice requires much more time, deeper processing and increased cognitive load. Thick slices pull granular details such as color, emotion, and the narrative of the message.  Although we want customers to capture the full thick slice of our ads, we may be a bit too optimistic to expect this…

Why the Thin Slice is Critical to Ad Success

The majority of customers will not capture the full message but rather absorb merely a thin slice of our ads. The graph below illustrates how customers view ads – showing the distribution of ad viewers x ad exposure. Put simply, as time duration increases, the number of viewers of the ad decreases dramatically. This makes sense, as most people actively avoid ads. However, before people ignore ads they have to size them up.

What Behavioral Science Teaches Us About Ad Testing

Although people have severely limited attention spans, all hope is not lost for advertising. Behavioral science shows we can extract information from ads in less than 100msec. When we scroll down our social media feeds, multi-task, pay partial attention or view ads in the periphery – we are implicitly extracting information that can benefit brands. By measuring the rapid, automatic appraisals with little or no “conscious” attention to the ad, we can start quantifying if ads are adding value beyond the “full forced exposure”.

Do you want to extract value from customers who only see a full ad exposure? Or do you also want to impact the much larger volume of customers who see your ad for a split second? To tap the latter, don’t assume customers view advertising in an ideal “laboratory” setting. Adjust testing to reconstruct the environment in which consumers actually process advertisements in today’s world.



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  • Vanmarcke, S., & Wagemans, J. (2015). Rapid gist perception of meaningful real-life scenes: Exploring individual and gender differences in multiple categorization tasks. i-Perception.
  • Wedel, M., & Pieters, R. (2000). Eye fixations on advertisements and memory for brands: A model and findings. Marketing science
  • Yoo, C. Y. (2008). Unconscious processing of Web advertising: Effects on implicit memory, attitude toward the brand, and consideration set. Journal of interactive marketing