Written by Natalia Bus | October 2023


The marketing and research industries love to simplify things. Oftentimes, we’re even guilty of oversimplifying. Attention is one such thing. Everyone knows what attention is, until you ask them for a definition. The truth of the matter is that attention, and the science behind it, are complex. Looking at the word as more of an umbrella term might be the only productive way of studying it.

Last week, we did just that at Walnut Unlimited’s annual Brainy Bar event. Host and founder Dr. Cristina de Balanzo gathered leading neuroscience minds and visual specialists, alongside representatives from WARC, Global, IAB and eye square, to uncover for us the many faces of attention. Read on for some golden nuggets of insight below.



With a decades-long career in eye tracking under his belt, our first speaker of the night, Dr. Tim Holmes, was out to poke a few bears. Diving straight in, he warned us of the overclaiming prevalent in the eye tracking space.

First and foremost, “precise attention” is often a myth that needs to be put to bed. And even if a period of sustained attention is accurately measured, it doesn’t always spell out something positive for the product or ad in question. This being because sustained attention can be associated with heavy cognitive load or confusion. In short, the relationship between eye tracking and attention is far more complex than a lot of the industry players out there give it credit for.

Say it louder for those in the back – all that the technology can reveal is where you’re looking. The rest comes from the interpretation and analysis of the data. In other words, eye tracking can only tell us about attention if you do it right. More specifically, if you design the research well, use the right kind of equipment, consider your participants, think about the context that you’re collecting the data in, and finally, analyse that data correctly.

I’m sure we’re all thinking it: easier said than done. Worry not, that’s where Dr. Holmes’ four tips for effective eye tracking come in:

  • Get the task right: Use tasks to drive attention you can eye track.
  • Don’t make it too easy: Design stimuli that demand the eyes do some work.
  • Understand your data: Dive deep into your data. Eye trackers and fixations are not created equal.
  • Remember to look at inattention: One thing eye tracking can tell you about with absolute certainty is what someone didn’t look at. Ignore this at your own peril.



Taking the stage next, CloudArmy’s Aoife McGuinness built for us a bridge between business and academia. Looking at what happens in the brain when we encounter creative work, her presentation zeroed in on the marketing industry’s favourite topic: creativity. Namely, how hitting the sweet spot between the novel and the familiar can be applied to real-world advertising to capture and hold attention.

We know from neuroaesthetics (a study of neural and behavioural aesthetic experiences) that the effects of novelty, familiarity, prediction, and surprise are not always straightforward. People prefer familiar faces but novel scenes; prefer music that’s at times surprising and at times predictable. So, which should advertisers strive for?

One solution is to strive for a bit of both, hitting that sweet spot of cognitive conflict. Or the ‘Aesthetic Aha’. When something new, challenging, or surprising opens the door to a feeling of comfort, meaning, or familiarity.

As is often the case, the art world has led the way with this creative method. Let’s take the work of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan for instance. His 2016 sculpture entitled ‘America’ is a fully functioning toilet made of 18-karat solid gold – straddling that space between the shocking and the ordinary in true style. But advertising is never far behind. Remember Cadbury’s famous gorilla ad?


Maurizio Cattelan "America" installation


The point being that playing somewhere on the scale between the novel and the familiar is a great place to start. But by no means to end. Because that sweet spot we’re trying to reach? It constantly moves and changes depending on a million different factors. How much headspace do people have available? What’s their state of mind in the moment? What’s the context of the entire experience?

So, it’s not all about the properties of the creative, but rather the active information processing that occurs when we come across that creative. And only when we start focusing on that, will we open up a whole new world of how to consider communication, measure creative effectiveness, and approach advertising.



While the visual may be where your mind first goes when you think “attention”, Walnut Unlimited’s Dr. Andy Myers switched the direction of the discussion by making a case for a huge aspect of our everyday lives that often goes unnoticed, sound. In a world that’s so visually saturated, the rich tapestry landscape of sound is left flying under the radar. But its power in terms of attention, and marketing in general, should not be overlooked.

A key fact to note is that sound is always-on. For most of us, there’s no way to turn our hearing on and off. Despite this, a common misconception exists that auditory attention is inextricably linked to awareness. Does that mean that if you’re not aware of something then you didn’t really hear it? No, it doesn’t. And this is where the mistaken belief that high attention is always good and low attention is always bad comes in.

Working with Global to delve into this very notion, Walnut Unlimited conducted a number of experiments. Comparing groups of active and passive listeners using different auditory media formats, they found that while active attention did yield higher brand awareness, it certainly wasn’t the gatekeeper of other measures. Here are a few of the insights to get your teeth stuck into:

  • The passive group scored at 57% for brand consideration compared to 53% in the active group.
  • Active didn’t always mean accurate, with up to 16% more “false” recall of ad takeouts and messages when people were actively listening.
  • Measures for branding moments were enhanced when people weren’t paying active attention – with a 204% stronger activation for response to branding in the passive condition.

Rather than existing as a dichotomy, active and passive attention exist on a spectrum. And one that’s constantly shifting. So, what does this mean for brands? Dr. Myers left us with three key takeaways:

  1. Relevancy is a key lever of attention – which is why it’s so important for brands to understand people.
  2. Attention is prone to even the simplest of nudges – it is easily manipulated by different techniques, for example, priming.
  3. Our expectations affect our attention – our aim, mission, or even mood, when approaching an ad matter.



In a world where the proliferation of content and media formats has trained our brains to filter out most stimuli, brands are more desperate than ever to cling on to attention. But, as our Brainy Bar experts demonstrated last week, the topic of attention is complicated, multimodal, and at times surprising – leaving us with more questions than answers.

All the more reason to keep at it. If you’re interested in being a part of that story, and unpacking some of those questions further, get in touch with Dr. Cristina de Balanzo at To be first on the list for more insight-rich events, register here.