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Feb. 25, 2004

Print ad pictures: Less is more

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—When it comes to the size of pictures in print ads, bigger isn't necessarily better, according to a University of Michigan Business School study.

Contrary to advertisers' popular belief, increasing the size of the visual element does not increase consumers' total attention to an advertisement, the study shows. To attract maximum attention to the ad as a whole, advertisers are better off devoting more space to the text portion and increasing the headline size than using large photos or illustrations.

"Marketers cannot persuade consumers unless they have their attention first, and attention is progressively the bottleneck—in fact, it has been called the 'scarcest resource' in business," said Michel Wedel, a marketing professor at the Michigan Business School. "When print ads fail to attract consumers' attention, the financial implications are huge."

In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Marketing, Wedel and colleague Rik Pieters of Tilburg University in The Netherlands used infrared eye-tracking technology to document how consumers' attention is captured and transferred by the three key elements of print advertisements—brand, pictorial and text.

They observed the reactions of more than 3,600 consumers to 1,363 full-page print ads in 65 consumer magazines published in the Dutch market, collaborating with the research company Verify International, based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The magazines contained 812 national and international brand names in 71 product categories, including airlines, alcoholic beverages, cars, cleansing products, clothing, coffee, pet foods, restaurants and retail stores.

Attention to the entire advertisement, Wedel and Pieters say, is significantly impacted by the overall size of the ad itself—a 1 percent increase in ad surface leads to the same percentage increase in attention. Similarly, increasing the amount of space devoted to text by 1 percent increases overall attention by nearly 0.15 percent.

However, increasing the surface size of the pictorial or brand element does not attract greater attention to print advertisements, they say.

"Devoting more space in the ad to text prompts reading, which has an overall positive effect in gaze duration, in other words, how much attention consumers devote to the ad in its entirety," Wedel said. "Advertisers would be ill-advised to increase the size of the pictorial in an effort to maximize attention to the advertisement as a whole."

For the ad elements themselves, the researchers conclude that the pictorial element, regardless of size, is most effective in drawing attention to itself. The text element, on the other hand, is more sensitive to size and attracts additional attention when it occupies more space. Print, unlike brand and visuals, also is more affected by consumers' involvement with products and familiarity with brands.

The study suggests that ad elements, particularly brand and text, compete with each other for attention, and increasing the size of one often detracts from the others. But when more attention is directed toward a particular ad element, there is a carry-over of increased attention to other elements.

For example, once consumers' attention is captured by the brand element, it plays a key role in routing their attention through the entire advertisement, including the pictorial and text components.

The findings also reveal that while brand familiarity reduces consumers' attention to the brand element, it simultaneously increases attention to the text. Thus, advertisers with familiar brands who wish to attract attention are better off increasing the text surface in their ads, even at the expense of their brand image size, the researchers say.

"Size clearly matters in capturing attention to advertising, and the space devoted to the three key elements affects the attention consumers pay to them and to the ad as a whole," Wedel said. "No single element is superior, but each is more effective than the others in a specific way—the pictorial for base attention capture, the text for incremental attention capture and the brand for attention transfer."

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