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February 2003

Delve deeper into hot topics featured in NGM's February Geographica with help from Resources. Click on a link, pick up a periodical, browse through a book, and explore!
The Book Guy

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Doctor, My Eyes

Who Knew

Doctor, My Eyes
How we watch TV ads

An unofficial American holiday every January is Super Bowl Sunday, when a bazillion people congregate in private homes and bars to eat potato chips and watch TV commercials. There's also a football game.

Given that tens of millions of dollars are spent to make and air the ads, you figure at least a few million more might be devoted to figuring out how viewers perceive them. Sure enough, researchers have spent decades watching people watching ads. Of particular interest: what we do with our eyes.

"Our eyes are very busy. They're continuously scanning the visual field in front of them," says Moshe Eizenman of the University of Toronto, the inventor of an eye-tracking device.

Research shows that our gaze zooms in on moving objects, such as the lips of a speaking person. Our eyes are drawn to sharp edges and contrasting colors. That's whey commercials often show a colorful product against a white background, and why luxury sedans are constantly hurtling along mountain roads.

A good ad should "encourage a natural visual scanning pattern," reports Eizenman, and his work suggests that may not happen if an ad makes the viewer think too much. He studied the eye movements of people driving cars while talking on cell phones. When test subjects were asked, over their phones, to add two two-digit numbers, they suddenly scanned less of their environment. (Ever find yourself squinting when someone gives you a math problem?)

But can a commercial really make you more likely to choose one product over dozens of brightly packaged competitors on a supermarket shelf?

Chris Janiszewski, professor of marketing at the University of Florida, did a study some years ago on a Mountain Dew commercial. The ad featured Dew-drinking young people surfing river rapids. This frenetic scene was followed by an image of a Mountain Dew can. After showing the commercial to a group of test subjects, Janiszewski then rearranged the ad for a different group. This time he showed the can first, then the surfing. Finally he had both groups view photos of four different soda brands sitting on a shelf while training infrared lights on the subjects' pupils. The second group—the ones who saw the can, then the surfing—looked at the Mountain Dew more quickly. Janiszewski concluded that advertisers can better "condition" viewers if they show the product first.

So far this research is of more interest to academics than to Madison Avenue. "Advertising people aren't engineers," notes Janiszewski. "They're usually liberal arts people."

Maybe someday the Comp Lit majors will be replaced by eye-trackers who will gain total mastery over our minds—but what can you Dew about it?

—Joel Achenbach
   Washington Post Staff Writer

Web Links

Rough Draft
Writer Joel Achenbach's column is gaining a cult following. It takes a sometimes humorous, sometimes eye-squinting, but always intelligent look at today's headlines, personal interests, and the little life-annoyances we all live with.

America's River

Take a look at Joel's recent piece for the Washington Post on "America's River," the Potomac, and its remarkable history.

Advertising Research Foundation
Search the archives of the Journal of Advertising Research or order publications such as "Why Market Research Matters" from this organization of advertisers, research firms, media companies, and educational institutions.

Click on the Data Center link for reports on advertising research and to ask your own question from this journal covering the advertising industry.

Association for Consumer Research
Publisher of the Journal of Consumer Research, this organization is made up primarily of academic researchers in the field of consumer behavior.

Free World Map

Eizenman, Moshe, and others. "The Impact of Cognitive Distraction on Driver Visual Behaviour and Vehicle Control." Transport Canada, February 2002. Available online at:

Janiszewski, Chris, and Luk Warlop. "The Influence of Classical Conditioning Procedures on Subsequent Attention to the Conditioned Brand," Journal of Consumer Research (September 1993), 171-89

Kilbourne, Jean. Can't Buy My Love. Touchstone, 1999.


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