An Eyeball Test for Better Ads

By tracking every twitch of the eye, PreTesting can tell which TV ads really work.

By Todd Wasserman, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- How can you tell when TV viewers are interested in your ad? Simple, says Lee Weinblatt: Just look at their eyes. In February, Weinblatt's 25-year-old ad consultancy, PreTesting, rolled out a new system to help advertisers gauge the effectiveness of their spots for $2,000 a pop (a mere drop in the ocean of the average $381,000 production budget for a 30-second ad on national TV).

The system, called eMotion, uses a PC-connected camera to measure the saccadic motion of viewers' eyes--the subtle eyeball vibrations that increase when we see something of interest. PreTesting follows up with an interview to determine how much the viewers remember. Then a proprietary algorithm gives ad execs instant feedback on how well the spot worked.

Weinblatt's thesis: Viewers should be engaged but not so visually stimulated for the full 30 seconds that they don't take in any verbal information. "This could be revolutionary," he says. "Advertisers will finally be able to understand which ads are working." Weinblatt's favorite example, from his beta-testing, was an ad for Dr. Scholl's massaging gel insoles. It featured a leggy model emerging from a swimming pool, which sent the eyes of his male subjects vibrating. When the model turned out to be wearing high-heel shoes, his female subjects got excited. Then the ad cut to nothing but text and voice-over, letting the information sink in.

"Eye-tracking studies are among the most reliable measures of consumer behavior," says Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard professor who specializes in consumer psychology. "Especially with the technology PreTesting is using."

For Weinblatt, this technology is the culmination of 30 years' research linking saccadic motion and TV ads. The previous system required participants to have their heads secured for the duration of the tests, Clockwork Orange-style. But eMotion allows viewers to move their heads naturally, thanks to a special computer-driven camera mount that is able to distinguish eye movement from head movement. Now Weinblatt's eyes are on the prize: a cut of the budget for all 76 million TV ads that run in the United States every year.


1. A plasma monitor shows TV ads to Weinblatt's focus group participants.

2. A hidden camera records the motion of their eyeballs; it is able to tell where the eyes are, even if the head moves.

3. The eMotion software notes where the eyeballs were focused and how fast they were vibrating--a measure of participants' engagement with the ad. A follow-up questionnaire tests how much they remember. Top of page

To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.