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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Balsters

If attention is the answer, what's the marketing question?

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

Update (6/10/2022): You can watch my lecture on this topic by clicking here

"Attending a poster session at a recent meeting, I was reminded of the old adage `To the man who has only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail'. In this case, however, instead of a hammer we had a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine..." - Kosslyn (1999)

This quote comes from one of the most important papers I read during my PhD - 'If neuroimaging is the answer, what's the question?' by Kosslyn (1999). I can’t overemphasise the impact this paper had on my scientific development (I think everyone in research should read it!). Although it centres around problems with the over-use of brain imaging, the core message applies to all scientific practices.

A tool is only as good as the question you're asking.

So with that in mind, I really enjoyed the recent Attention in Context workshop hosted by ThinkBox. Personally, it was a great opportunity to reflect on the last 9 months at my new role as Neuroscience Director at BASES NielsenIQ. In particular, it made me consolidate my thoughts on the role of attention in advertising. When is attention a useful metric for marketers?

Are you assuming attention is visual?

So, if you haven't watched the Attention in Context series yet I'd recommend doing so. Dr Ali Goode (Gorilla in the Room) opens with a wonderful overview of what psychologists and neuroscientists have learnt about attention. One of the topics both Dr Goode and the panel discuss is the advertising industry’s emphasis on visual attention. If someone‘s not looking at an advert, are they paying attention to it? Dr Goode uses ethnographic research to show two great examples of the disconnect between attention and vision:

  1. Someone watching TV whilst their attention is directed to their partner (looking without attention)

  2. Someone looking at their phone whilst they sing along to ad jingles (attention without looking)

Back in the early 1980‘s, psychologists like Posner showed it’s possible to separate attention from where you’re in looking - a process called covert attention. The panel went further to discuss lots of examples of the positive impact auditory cues had on ad success.

This tells us that in order to measure attention effectively, you need to think about multisensory attention not just visual.

This means you need something better than eye-tracking, something that captures all senses, something like electroencephalography (EEG). Measuring attention systems in the brain means you’re not biased to one sensory modality and getting a broader read on attention. However, this all assumes that attention matters for ad success...

Is attention a good indicator of ad success?

Towards the end of his overview on attention, Dr Goode talked about fluent processing. The idea that the brain loves to absorb information and doing this in a simple/fluent way can make content more easily absorbed by the viewer. This idea has been at the core of the NielsenIQ Neuroscience team.

I’ve always told clients that we’re agnostic about the role of attention in advertising. Sometimes high attention is a good thing, sometimes low attention is good thing.

As the workshop suggests, we believe you have to consider #AttentionInContext. For example, at NielsenIQ we consider attention in the context of other brain systems - motivation and memory. The images below show different patterns of brain activity that are commonly seen when watching TV ads.

  • The first image (left) shows strong activity in all three brain systems. Although this content requires viewers to focus (high brain activity in attention brain systems), it's still emotionally engaging and viewers are connecting with it (high brain activity in emotion motivation and memory brain systems).

  • The second image (centre) shows fluent processing. High levels of emotional motivation and memory paired with low levels of attention tell us that viewers are emotionally engaging with the content easily. These first two examples show how viewers can effectively process strong ad moments either with or without high attention.

  • The final image (right) indicates confusion - high levels of attention tell us that viewers are working hard to process content but low levels of emotion motivation also tell us that there's little pay off.

So you can see that high attention can be good or bad. It’s crucial to see attention in the larger context.

Do you need attention to answer your question?

Coming back to my opening quote from Kosslyn (1999), does attention tell you what you want to know? To investigate this question and more, our Global Head of Science (Dr Shestyuk) used brain imaging to scan the brains of 331 people as they each watched different prime time TV shows (Big Brother, Masterchef, Suits etc).

The results showed that brain signals can predict TV viewership and Twitter engagement, but the graph below shows something more important than that.

When Shestyuk et al (2019) looked at each brain network separately, it was clear that only the attention brain network (blue bar) was needed to predict TV viewership. However, when it came to social media engagement (Twitter volume) a combination of attention and motivation brain signals (red bar) were required.

"...while EEG measures of attention can serve as a minimum necessary (e.g., gating) metric for predicting TV consumption behaviors, the emotional motivation measures appear to reflect a break-through potential for TV programming – attention is necessary for audiences to be aware of the content, but emotional motivation is what is going to prompt pro-active engagement with the content." - Shestyuk et al (2019)

These results show that using attention as a metric for marketing success really depends on your question. Attention is useful for predicting passive viewership and awareness, but if you want consumers to actively engage with the brand then you also need to consider motivation.

In fact, multiple R&D validations by both NielsenIQ and independent validation by our clients have found that motivation and memory brain systems are 75-80% predictive of behaviour change (i.e., sales). So far, our research suggests that attention brain signals are not predictive of ad-based sales.


I thoroughly enjoyed the Attention in Context workshop and I hope to see more of these types of sessions bringing together the worlds of science and marketing. What do I think all marketers need to know about attention?

  1. Attention is more than where you’re looking - go to the brain

  2. Attention needs to be considered with other brain systems - there’s good and bad attention

  3. Attention might not be predictive of what you want to know


Lecture given at the Museum of Brands 22nd Sept 2022

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