An Eye For the Ads: TV Commercials

Tobii Pro Insight Research Services conducted an eye tracking research study to evaluate the visibility of commercials in the modern living room.


The TV Commercial has long been considered the most effective mass media advertising format ever created. However, the digital revolution provided TV watchers with a variety of new 'ad avoidance' tools, which have pulled attention away from commercials. Among the most popular of these tools are smartphones, tablets, and other handheld internet-connected devices. We were interested in understanding how far the TV commercial has fallen in terms of visual attention.

Where do viewers focus their attention during the commercials?

The visual behavior of modern handheld-device using TV viewers is illustrated in the two charts below. During the TV program (left pie chart), they spend over 80% of their time looking at the TV screen. This suggests that, despite other distractions, the TV show itself holds their interest. But when the commercial break begins (right pie chart) attention shifts heavily to the handheld device. Our results indicated that viewers were looking at the TV screen for less than half of the time that commercials are on the screen.

Two charts illustrating the distribution of attention during the show and commercial breaks.

How do today’s viewers visually experience commercials?

The eye tracking data allowed us to dig deeper into the visual experience of the TV viewer. Although the 42.1% of attention to commercials described above might seem like a sufficient time period for the advertiser to communicate with the TV viewer, it is important to note that this attention is rarely uninterrupted. The participants in our study looked from TV to tablet an average of 2.7 times per commercial. In other words, the limited attention that commercials received was divided into brief, nonconsecutive 'looks' at the TV screen. This creates an even greater challenge for advertisers, as they must communicate their message in an abbreviated time frame to a viewer whose attention sporadically switches to and from the screen.

The visualization here illustrates the rapidly changing focus of one participant during a commercial break. Each blue dot indicates a shift in attention from tablet to TV screen. As you can see, the experience of commercials is generally not a cohesive attentional event, but rather a distracted back-and-forth visual juggling act.

The visualization illustrating  the rapidly changing focus of one participant during a commercial break.

Which ads most successfully engage the viewer?

Although the trends described above certainly represent challenges to the advertiser, we did find some good news. Of the 400+ commercial exposures examined in our study, 19.2% were watched in their entirety. This suggests that the commercial still has the power to engage and interest the modern distracted viewer. We were able to identify several key features of commercials that were associated with increased visual attention. In the best cases, these commercials not only caught the eye of the viewer, but also compelled them to learn more about the product using the mobile device. The video below provides an example of this behavior. The viewer was interested by an Apple Watch commercial, and then later used his iPad to access additional information about this product. This is the bright side for the modern TV advertiser- the viewers to whom you are advertising are now able to see pictures, compare products, read reviews and even make purchases from the comfort of their own couch.

Tools and methods

A sample of 25 TV watchers participated in the study, either in their own living room or in a living room environment within a testing lab. Each participant was asked to watch an episode of the television show Mad Men and allowed to use a smartphone or tablet as often as they liked throughout the episode and commercial breaks.

The Tobii Pro Glasses 2 wearable eye tracking system was used to collect eye tracking data for all participants. This lightweight, unobtrusive research tool allowed us to explore visual attention to the TV show, the commercials, and the mobile device with a high level of detail.

Two people in the living room wearing Tobii Pro Glasses 2 and watching the Mad Man TV show.

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