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When people in ads should look at the viewer - or away

Depending on your product, people in your ads should look at or away from the camera. For example, sales for a sun hat were 30% higher when the model looked away.

Topics: Ads | Website/App | Social Media
For: B2C
Research date: February 2021
Universities: University of Houston

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📝 Intro

Where words are restrained, the eyes often talk a great deal” - Samuel Richardson

It’s easy to forget how impactful our eyes are. That is until you realize there are entire ancient Indian dances centered around them.

📈 Recommendation

If your product is hedonic (e.g. a decorative candle, food, fashion, experiences), you’ll likely use emotional ads, so models in them should look away from the viewer.

If your product is utilitarian (e.g. insect-repellent candle, home repair, accounting services), you’ll likely use informational ads, so spokespersons in them should look at the viewer.

If your message generates negative emotions (e.g. campaign about the dangers of drunk driving), the person(s) in your ad should also look directly at the viewer.

🎓 Findings

  • Whether a human model in an ad gazes at - or away from - the viewer impacts the ad’s appeal and effectiveness (e.g. sales, signups).

  • Ad models that look away from the viewer are more effective for ads with a positive emotional appeal, typically used for hedonic products. This works better at making the viewer imagine themselves using the product (e.g. imagine how fashionable you would be with these sneakers). For example:

    • An online ad for a sun hat generated 30% more sales when the model was looking away from the camera compared to when she was gazing at it

    • People rated a watch ad 19% better when the model’s gaze was averted, compared to when it was directed at the viewer

  • Ad models that look at the viewer are better for:

    • Informational ads, typically used for utilitarian products, because a direct gaze increases the credibility of the spokesperson (e.g. these safety work boots can withstand even the worst accidents).

    • Negative emotional appeal ads (e.g. anti-smoking ad), because viewers don’t want to live the negative experience themselves and the direct look increases the credibility of the spokesperson. For example, in an ad asking to sign a petition for victims of domestic abuse, 75.2% of female participants signed when the model’s gaze was direct, while only 53.8% signed when the gaze was averted

These models for a perfume ad should be looking away, not at the viewer - Click to zoom in

🧠 Why it works

  • An averted gaze enhances the narrative transportation of an ad, making it easier to imagine ourselves in that situation or using the product.

  • A direct gaze increases our feeling that the person in the ad is someone else, rather than ourselves, but also makes them seem more credible if they’re communicating a message.

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  • The research was conducted only on image ads. Videos were not tested but the principles driving these effects should hold in that context too.

  • We don’t know if (and how) it matters where the model is looking when they are averting their gaze (e.g. left, down, opposite the viewer).

  • The effect could be different for some emotions (e.g. pride, shame, empathy) and the size of the pupil could strengthen or weaken the effect (e.g. by expressing genuine excitement or interest). This study did not investigate this level of depth.

  • It’s likely that the type and direction of a model’s gaze influences where a viewer focuses (e.g. on the model’s face, the direction they’re gazing in, the whole scene). Scientists haven’t explored that question yet.

🏢 Companies using this

  • Of 118 advertising professionals surveyed by the researchers, 67% initially predicted that direct gaze is more effective. When told about the results 66% found the findings ‘surprising and unexpected’. So it’s unlikely that many companies are consciously using gaze direction to maximize their ad’s effectiveness.

  • In a sample of 783 print ads (2014 - 2019) that included a model, 48% looked away from the camera, 32.6% gazed directly at the viewer, and 19.4% had both (e.g. multiple models) or where they were looking was not visible.

⚡ Steps to implement

  • If you want to emotionally involve your customers into imagining using your product, show a model using your product (see Ariyh tip: your ads should show people using your product) with an averted gaze.

  • If you want to give them information or don’t want them to have an adverse reaction to negative emotions, ask your model(s) to gaze directly at the camera.

  • When applying this to video ads, proceed with extra caution since the researchers didn’t test this effect with videos.

🔍 Study type

Field, online, and lab experiments.

📖 Research

To, R. N., & Patrick, V. M. How the Eyes Connect to the Heart: The Influence of Eye Gaze Direction on Advertising Effectiveness. Journal of Consumer Research (February 2021).

🏫 Affiliations

Bauer College of Business, University of Houston. United States

Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this paper, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.

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