How a Model’s Eye Gaze Can Make an Ad More Effective

How a Model’s Eye Gaze Can Make an Ad More Effective

Steve’s breakdown: Just a little something from The Wall Street Journal we thought would be interesting.

EVERYWHERE, USA: New research suggests having a model look away from the camera makes an emotional ad more effective; the opposite is true of an ad designed to be informative

To make an ad more effective, sometimes it pays to have the model look away from the viewer. A Dior store in New York’s Hudson Yards.


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.

For informational ads, the spokesperson’s credibility is seen as significantly higher when her gaze is direct. Healthfirst ads at a Citi Bike station in New York.


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.

Ads making an emotional pitch were rated more favorably in a study when the model’s gaze was averted. A display window outside a store in Soho, New York.


Dr. Patrick says she designed five studies to try to determine whether still ads with models gazing away most enhanced narrative transportation, and when such an averted gaze was preferable.

One study involved two iterations of the same ad for sun hats that were sent to nonoverlapping female consumers on Facebook. In one version, a model in a hat is looking into the camera; in the other, she is looking away. Those who saw the averted-gaze ad were 4% more likely to click through and 30% more likely to purchase the hat once they did than those who saw the direct-gaze version. Dr. Patrick theorizes that “we put ourselves into the story, we picture ourselves wearing this hat.” Two follow-up studies in a lab setting confirmed that an ad model’s averted gaze significantly enhanced narrative transportation, and, ultimately, the advertisement’s effectiveness.

Next, the researchers wanted to determine whether the type of ad, either emotional or informational, matters when it comes to the effect of gaze. Their final two studies featured four ads for the same coffee shop. In one ad, the model states that the cafe is her “home away from home” (emotional), while in another she says the cafe “has the best high-quality freshly brewed coffee” (informational). Each type of ad had two versions: one with the model looking directly into the camera and another with her eyes looking away. For the emotional ad, participants said they experienced greater narrative transportation and rated it more favorably when the model’s gaze was averted. For the informational ad, participants said the spokesperson’s credibility was significantly higher when her gaze was direct, just like in real-life conversation.

“If the advertiser wants to appeal to the heart—to have the viewer walk in someone else’s shoes, to be transported, or to have an emotional response—then the model should avert his [or her] gaze,” says Dr. Patrick.

The professor believes her findings can help marketers grab more eyeballs in a sea of visual noise.

“Some data has shown that 95 million images are uploaded to Instagram every day,” Dr. Patrick says. “Considering gaze may provide marketers another opportunity to break through that level of clutter and get more than a passing glance from potential consumers.”


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