When you leaf through a magazine what of advertisements make you stop? It is not an easy question to answer as so many variables are usually involved. To tackle this question a group of researchers used unique eye tracking data and innovative measures of visual complexity and were able to develop recommendations for making ads that are more attention-getting.
The primary measures defined by the researchers were Feature Complexity and Design Complexity. “Advertisements that contain more detail and variation in their basic visual features, color, luminance and edges” are considered to have more feature complexity. The innovativeness comes in how the researchers operationalized this measure. Given that in a computer image unstructured complexity of this type is reflected in the variation at the individual pixel level, the researchers use the size of the compressed (JPEG) file of the picture as a measure of its feature complexity. So when two ads that have identical sizes are compressed, the one which has a larger compressed size has more feature complexity (or less redundancy).
Design complexity is high in “advertisements with more elaborate designs in terms of shapes, objects and patterns they contain”. So feature complexity uses the unstructured variation in the visual features of image pixels, while design complexity uses the structured variation in terms of specific shapes, objects and their arrangements in the ad. Most importantly, design complexity is fully under the control of the ad agency.
To operationalize design complexity, the researchers suggest six principles: quantity of objects in the ad, irregularity of objects, dissimilarity of objects, detail of objects, asymmetry of object arrangement and irregularity of object arrangement.
Using eye tracking data when 249 advertisements were examined, it was pretty clear that feature complexity hurts attention paid to the brand and attitude toward the ad. Design complexity helps direct attention toward the picture and the ad as a whole and increases comprehensibility of the ad and attitude toward the ad. In short, that which is directly under the control of the creator of the advertisement has the most beneficial impact on the viewer. The obvious recommendation here is to reduce feature complexity and increase design complexity.
Given that there are six principles outlined to measure design complexity how did the 249 ads do? It turns out that only 8% used four or more principles. Since each principle increased attention paid to the ad, the recommendation would be to use more of the principles in developing print ads so as to make them get more attention. Measuring the number of principles used is also a quick and cheap way of understanding the effectiveness of the ads before expensive concept testing is done.
This research was conducted by Rik Pieters, Professor of Marketing at the University of Tillburg, Michel Wedel, Pepsico Professor of Consumer Research at the University of Maryland and Rajeev Batra, S.S. Kresge Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan. It appeared in the Journal of Marketing.