Perceptual Styles

Attention and Perceptual Selection

Let’s take a look at the misconception of the 8 second attention span and how it affects consumer engagement.

In our last post we discussed the concept of sensory adaptation and how it is driving the evolution of advertising. Here’s a quick re-cap: consumers are quickly tuning out of the content they find irrelevant and immersing themselves in what they enjoy. For marketers and advertisers, that means that content needs to make a personalized impression, and fast. While some blame the consumer’s supposed depreciating attention span, the psychology behind those claims is more nuanced. Let’s take a look at the misconception of the 8 second attention span and how it affects consumer engagement. 

The Selective Consumer

In the past, researchers mistook the selective consumer for a distracted shopper. Microsoft released a report that cited research from Statistic Brain on the human attention span, and how it was down to 8 seconds: less than a goldfish (Microsoft, 2015). The report received all sorts of support and backlash, and was eventually dismissed as a myth. But was it really a myth, or did we misconceive the underlying meaning? 

A clever psychologist once wrote that “we should all be fortunate that consumers are selective.” The market is watered down with similar, abundant brands, while the landscape of modern ad space has become oversaturated with content. In the consumer’s mind, that equals too many options and information overload. In order to navigate the sea of ads, some consumers have developed personalized psychological filters. 

These filters enable consumers to rapidly identify what they resonate with, and filter out the rest, so that they can focus on what matters most. As it turns out, the eight-second attention span is actually a form of psychological filter. The selective consumer will pay attention to something for about 8 seconds, and then filter it accordingly. The window of opportunity in this type of selective consumer is called the eight second filter, which is the amount of time available for an ad to capture their attention. If an ad is on the wrong side of the filter, then it will fade into the background noise, and their attention will drift elsewhere. Once the ad is ignored, they redirect attention to another more stimulating or important source. 

The result is a more selective consumer that relies on first impressions (~ 8 seconds) to file ads into the engage or ignore pile.

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First Impressions

There’s a saying in advertising that goes like this, “where the eye stops, the sale begins,” (Pieters et. al., 2010). This is the first moment of contact in the buyer’s mind. Once they lock eyes with the ad, the clock on the eight second filter begins. The design of the ad heavily influences engagement and facilitates the consumer’s interpretation behind the meaning of the ad.

Features like color, luminescence, and spacing make up part of an ad’s unstructured complexity. Research using eye-tracking found that too much feature complexity can divert sustained attention away from the brand (Pieters et. al, 2010). Cluttered ads can prevent the consumer from latching onto that stopping point: the brand. One way to balance clutter is with white space. On the other hand, design complexity—specific forms, patterns, and organizations of objects—can sustain attention on the ad and thus the brand (Pieters et. al., 2010). Principles like balance, consistency, focal points, and repetition come into play as intentional factors. Design complexity also plays an important role in the overall ad space landscape. 

Recall that the modern ad space is oversaturated. There’s so much information and so many options that consumers are becoming more and more selective in what they attend to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that stand-alone ads are the best bet. In fact, modern research shows engaging consumers' eight second filters to guide them towards a target ad can garner results on product preferences. For example, Florack et. al., demonstrated how subjects develop more positive product preferences when they direct their attention to a certain product while ignoring others (2020). In the other condition, where subjects merely looked at products alone, product preferences were expressed to a lesser degree.

Advertisers can use the eight second filter to their advantage. By drawing attention to a product within the complex visual ad space by standing out over others, advertisers can use competition to stand out. Even more, complex images can lead to more ad likability, which is correlated with brand preference (Vakratsas and Ambler, 1999).

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The first impression counts, and it’s being communicated during the initial engagement with the ad. 

Personalized Message 

Consumers don’t just process the visual elements of an ad, they want to know what type of ad it is and whether or not it is relevant to their wants, needs, and likeability (Wedel and Pieters, 2015). In short, they want to know the gist of it. If the ad is not relevant, it is ignored. Online, this is often called banner blindness (Kaspar et. al., 2019). What emerges is an opportunity to hook consumers with a message that matches their MO, because after an ad passes that eight second filter, consumers tend to immerse themselves in the content. 

Imagine that you—an avid outdoors person—are reading an online article about a recent expedition a traveling journalist took in the wilderness. You begin to notice (or ignore) the various ads on the page: banners, natives, interactives, etc. Most of them have nothing to do with the article you’re reading about. Then, you zero in on an ad for the brand of tent that the journalist mentioned using when setting up camp. Boom! The eyes stop, and you begin to engage with the ad to learn more about the tent this wilderness journalist has been using.

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If the ad contains a rich, emotion laden narrative arc (usually achieved through video), you might just be inspired to respond to the call to action and click on the ad to view the product. And if the perfect storm of opportunity arises, you might purchase the tent to spark your next outdoor adventure. 

This type of advertising is engaging and persuasive because it is personally relevant to the end consumer. It’s not enough for modern ads to be visually appealing, they need a personalized component that speaks to a certain kind of audience. Identifying and targeting a particular audience depends on several factors, ranging from their demographics to their attitudes, expectations, experiences, interests, and other psychographic factors. In our next post, we will discuss how these personalized perceptual sets affect consumers' perceptions of advertisements.


Florack, A., Egger, M., & Hübner, R. (2020). When products compete for consumers attention: How selective attention affects preferences. Journal of Business Research, 111, 117-127.

Kaspar, K., Sarah, L. W., & Wilbers, A. (2019). Personally relevant online advertisements: Effects of demographic targeting on visual attention and brand evaluation. PLoS One, 14(2). 

Microsoft. (2015). Attention spans. 

Pieters, R., Wedel, M., Batra, R. (2010). The Stopping Power of Advertising: Measures and Effects of Visual Complexity. Journal of Marketing. p. 48-60. 

Vakratsas, D., & Ambler, T. (1999). How Advertising Works: What Do We Really Know? Journal of Marketing, 63(1), p. 26-43.

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