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How Artists and Advertisers Leverage Eye Gaze

Using gaze direction as a strategic cue can improve marketing efforts.

Key points

  • Eye gaze direction is a visual cue that can be strategically employed to shape how consumers respond to advertising.
  • Averted gaze appeals to the viewer's emotions and can immerse the viewer in the narrative.
  • Direct gaze appeals to the viewer's rational side and conveys credibility.
Photo by Felipe Cardoso from Pexels
Averted eye gaze
Source: Photo by Felipe Cardoso from Pexels

The eyes are often referred to as the mirror of the soul. Eyes may be described as “brimming with tears” or “sparkling with wit” or as “sultry” or “glazed over” to reflect our internal states and convey our deepest feelings.

It is no wonder, then, that the visual and performance arts rely on specific devices in paintings, theater, dance and film to utilize the eyes to convey emotions and to engage the audience in a way that makes them experience the emotions being depicted on the canvas or the stage.

Drawing on these insights, recent research in marketing has demonstrated the role of eye gaze in advertising. Like artists and theater (or dance and film) directors, advertisers aim to convey emotion in ads, on social media, magazines and billboards, to draw consumers in and engage them with the advertised product.

Pretty much all ads that portray a model have the model either looking at you the viewer with a direct gaze or away from you with an averted gaze. But little research has focused on how advertising effectiveness can be enhanced by understanding the strategic use of the eyes of the model depicted. In other words, can where the ad model’s eyes look matter?

To place the research on eye gaze direction in context, consider that as far as prior work in social psychology goes, direct gaze is much preferred to averted gaze in interpersonal contexts. Direct gaze builds trust and conveys interest and credibility. Averted gaze, in contrast, might signal dishonesty or shiftiness. But does the interpersonal context work in the same ways as a non-personal context like advertising or film in which the individual is not directly involved in the interaction but adopts a viewer or spectator stance?

To understand this, the aforementioned research forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research drew insights from performance and visual arts to show that averted gaze draws viewers in and encourages them to imagine themselves as part of the ad narrative.

Why Averted Gaze Can Cultivate Emotion

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Averted gaze transports you into the narrative
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The researchers liken this effect to the concept of the fourth wall in theater i.e. the conceptual boundary or imaginary wall between actors on a stage and the audience. Theater effectively creates the illusion that the actors on stage are unaware of the audience and cannot see or hear them. This assumption is central to the theater experience because it engages the audience, can take them on journeys to faraway lands (e.g. Miss Saigon), to time periods long past (e.g. Hamilton) or immerse the audience in a fantasy story world (e.g. Lion King or Phantom of the Opera).

To create this illusion, actors keep their eyes averted from the audience, effectively drawing them into the narrative. Sometimes, an actor speaks directly to the audience (in Act 1 of the play Hamlet or in the drama series the House of Cards) and in so doing shatters the fourth wall making them aware of their reality, making salient the place and time that they are currently in.

The research finds that when ad models are depicted with averted gaze (eyes looking away from the viewer) rather than with a direct gaze (looking straight at the viewer), the viewer becomes more engaged with, and immersed in, the ad. What this implies is that a marketer should use averted gaze to advertise products that appeal to the heart i.e. for emotional or hedonic product categories (e.g., hotels, perfume, restaurants).

However, when advertising products have a rational appeal, direct gaze is preferred.

When marketing functional products (e.g., farm equipment, household cleaners, washing machines), marketers tend to use informational ads that outline the product features and this advertising appeal works best when coupled with an ad model looking directly at the viewer in a manner that conveys credibility.

References

To, Rita Ngoc, and Vanessa M. Patrick. "How the Eyes Connect to the Heart: The Influence of Eye Gaze Direction on Advertising Effectiveness." Journal of Consumer Research (2020).

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