Attentive reach and emotional impact

iat bw

In our post of Jan 3, we explored the relevance of sponsorship to the concept of attentive reach.  But we also asked an unresolved question around the relationship between attention and emotional impact which we’re returning to here.

In our post, we looked at the growing focus on attentive reach, which has been brought on by the erosion of trust in advertising reach metrics – after successive realisations about the real nature of ad visibility. One such example is the very low bar set by the Media Rating Council for an advertising impression – 50% pixels visible for 2 seconds. Advertisers are asking very pointed questions about the value of that exposure. Attentive reach, measured by gaze-tracking, assesses the level of attention paid – a sound starting point.

Gaze-tracking confirms that highly emotional moments in creative hold our attention.  But from our perspective this feels a little cart before horse.

A main purpose of advertising, it is now widely agreed, is to leverage emotional response in support of brand. Psychologically, emotion has two functions : it can be used to build a brand halo of positive sentiment to improve the overall perception of a brand; and it can be used to improve mental availability, by creating positive and accessible memories and associations. But the role of emotion is not to generate attention.

So from this perspective, gaze-tracking is simply offering a poor proxy measure for emotional engagement. And in this context, neither can gaze-tracking measure the impact of the stimulus on brand perception or provide diagnostics into strength of association between the emotion and the brand. So the important question is actually : how to measure and anticipate emotional impact?

We use two technologies : one methodological and one based on hard ware.


We first came across IAT in the mid 2000s, when we engaged with Dr David Lewis, author of Soul of the New Consumer. Dr Lewis was using IAT to build a clear picture of audience reactions to brand stimulus and drawing powerful new conclusions about the psychological dynamics of consumption.

We explored with him the potential application of IAT to sponsorship. Hard to imagine, at the time there was no online alternative to being wired up in front of a screen, so the conversation went no further. But the thought remained.

And nowadays, IAT can be run online at scale and is a popular academic approach to pre-conscious testing.

Dr Lewis with his robotic twin

Implicit Association Testing was initially developed by psychologists at Harvard University to assess unconscious racial bias and then validated in numerous studies. It uses variations in reaction times to pairs of stimuli to determine the associative strength between the stimuli. What does this show?

Well, if we return to the paradigm established by Daniel Kahneman, and referenced multiple times in our posts, primarily here, it makes more sense. If you remember, Kahneman describes two main ways that we process information : fast, System 1 and slow, System 2.  A rapid System 1 response, with little time lag, therefore indicates a strong, congruent, instinctive association – the ambition for all sponsorship. A slower indicates System 2 has had to step in to reach a considered judgement, indicating a weaker association. The relevant reaction times allow us to calibrate strength of association.

IAT has had a bad rap for some applications, but for this purpose, it’s both robust and versatile and has many applications to sponsorship. In the context of our question above, it can provide a clear calibration of how closely two objects are associated, namely many different dimensions of the brand impact arising from sponsorship.

Composite of the classic IAT stimulus format


GSR is another approach which has benefited hugely from advances in technology, especially microprocessor size and capabilities. GSR, also known as electrodermal response is a reliable measure of emotional excitement. The approach is based on the phenomenon that the skin momentarily becomes a better conductor of electricity when either external or internal stimuli occur that are physiologically arousing.

Arousal is a broad term but widely considered to be one of the two main dimensions of an emotional response. Measuring arousal is therefore not the same as measuring emotion, but is an important indicator of it.

Arousal has itself been found to be a strong predictor of attention and memory.

Sample output of raw data

Participants usually have a GSR device strapped to their hand, which is a little inconvenient but is a reliable location as a result of the density of eccrine sweat glands, which are highly responsive to emotional and other psychological stimuli.

Conductance is measured by placing two electrodes next to the skin and passing a tiny electric charge between the two points.

When the subject increases in arousal, his/her skin immediately becomes a slightly better conductor of electricity. This response can then be measured and communicated.

The Mindprober device

GSR is already being used to assess the emotional engagement of broadcast content and advertising, largely in the USA and largely by NBC. We are working with the Portuguese company Mindprober to provide an integrated service with IAT to provide an alternative and more effective research protocol for sponsorship.


There’s another dimension in which emotional engagement improves the effectiveness of sponsorship – and all marketing communications.

In the post, The Psychology of Sponsorship, we referred to the ‘mere exposure effect’, also known as the familiarity principle. The impact is that we can develop a preference towards brands (in this case) even if we are unaware of seeing them. Most of the time, the mere exposure effect happens subliminally, or at a pre-conscious level.

Robert Heath, in Seducing the Subconscious, created a new model for advertising based largely on the power of the mere exposure effect – that the power of advertising does not come from conscious consumption, providing numerous case studies to demonstrate the latent power of this effect. 

Of course, the notion of ‘mere exposure effect’ really runs against the grain of attentive reach and emotional impact. Or for that matter, sponsorship activation, because it suggests that ambient presence is good enough. 

Returning briefly to Daniel Kahneman helps us make sense of this tension. Another feature of System 1, the fast system, is that it is ‘always on’, permanently scanning the environment around and making rapid sense of it via its two preferred resources, heuristics and association. 

Kahneman is also clear that, under any form of threat, System 1 continues to scan, but with effectively a narrowed retina, focusing only on things which are material to managing the threat.

By contrast, under the influence of positive emotional arousal, System 1 feeds on environmental cues with even greater appetite. It absorbs more detail, conscious or not.

When exposed to positive emotional arousal therefore, the power of the ‘mere exposure effect’ would logically be stronger. This thesis is supported by a strong use case of Mindprober with regard to a sponsor of Euro 2020.

The client asked Mindprober to to measure the ability of Euro 2020 to deliver emotionally engaged audiences and increase ad effectiveness for its sponsorship of Euro 2020, with recommendations on which ad positions/breaks would lead to the most effective ads for future buys. Rather than measure on-screen visibility, which is the traditional approach, Mindprober were able to map emotional arousal against on screen visibility and ‘valence’ (positive v negative).

The brand was shown behind goal at a number of moments of peak excitement in the competition and recall in the US increased by approximately 10% –  despite the brand having no presence in that market. 


If you’re looking at attentive reach and gaze-tracking, you should really consider emotional impact.

It will give you a more direct and relevant assessment of outcome and provide a clear foundation for the brand component of sponsorship measurement. GSR will help you to align your sponsorship exposure with the content which will drive most emotional engagement – and IAT can measure the actual impact of that engagement on your brand.

For more details of our Head and Heart approach, please click here.