It is well-established that the most effective communicators look people directly in the eye when they speak. So does it follow that the most effective advertisements would feature models looking directly into the camera?
Not necessarily, according to a new paper from Vanessa Patrick, associate dean for research and professor of marketing at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business. Her research, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that an averted gaze is much more powerful when an ad aims to convey how people might feel using a product, while a direct gaze is more powerful in ads that seek to inform, or convey a product’s more functional features.
The importance of gaze direction in interpersonal interactions is something Dr. Patrick says she has been pondering for the past few years. “In a conversation or any other interpersonal interaction, we interpret that visual cue of eye contact as a sign of confidence and competence,” the professor says. “And when a person looks away as they speak, we consider them to be shifty and untrustworthy.”
As a marketing researcher and former advertising executive, Dr. Patrick wanted to know if people had the same response to gaze direction when viewing ads.
In their paper, Dr. Patrick and co-author Rita Ngoc To draw on social psychology’s narrative transportation theory, which suggests that when people get lost in a visual narrative, that story can shape their attitudes. For centuries, painters and performance-art directors have had their subjects avert their gaze to enhance the audience’s absorption into the narrative. More recently, marketing researchers have established that when observers feel transported while viewing advertisements, they tend to respond to those ads favorably. Until now, however, no research had been conducted to determine what affect an ad model’s gaze has on whether viewers feel transported.