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Michel Wedel Named UMD Distinguished Scholar-Teacher

Oct 28, 2013
World Class Faculty & Research

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The Eyes Have It

It’s not often that a lecture on advertising effectiveness begins with a primer on biology. But for Michel Wedel, Pepsico Professor of Consumer Science, learning about how customers respond to ads begins with learning how a customer actually sees.

Wedel was named a 2013-2014 University of Maryland Distinguished Scholar-Teacher. The honor goes to just four Maryland faculty each year and honors the rare combination of outstanding scholarly accomplishment with excellence in teaching. Wedel has been studying the effectiveness of advertising using sophisticated eye-tracking machinery for many years. His research calls on statistics, psychometrics, biometrics and marketing. During his Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Lecture, delivered on Wednesday, October 23, 2013, Wedel presented a fascinating lesson on eyes, eye movements and ad effectiveness.

“You can really only see clearly what is directly in the center of your vision, about the size of a thumbnail,” Wedel explained. Vision is dependent on a host of complex mechanisms. The eye moves in tiny jumps rather than smoothly, about 150,000 times a day. During those jumps, you temporarily stop seeing, because you'd be terrilby dizzy if your brain didn't ignore that movement. That is about 15 minutes of blindness a day, spaced out in tiny milliseconds.

Wedel demonstrated on a modern ad exactly where your eye jumps and fixates when you look at a print ad. “The average ad in a magazine gets an exposure of 2-3 seconds,” said Wedel. “What can advertisers communicate in that time?”

Plenty, as it turns out. Most ads don't get more than a single “fixation” – a tiny piece of attention -- lasting 200 to 300 milliseconds. But people can get the gist of most ads with just that small exposure. And their eyes will travel across the ad in what is described as a "scan path" in the same way every time they encounter the ad.

Wedel was able to capture this kind of data with eye trackers. Three cameras are hidden in the lower edge of a large desktop monitor; the cameras track the head and eye movements of the person sitting at the computer. Eye-trackers provides researchers like Wedel with reliable, quantitative evidence of what really captures consumers’ attention when they look at advertisements. In doing so, it gives marketers invaluable information about what works and what doesn’t in print and Web advertising.

Wedel has studied thousands of print ads using eye-trackers to determine the optimal size of different elements in ads. How large should the pictorial element be? How large should the text elements be, and where should they be located? One surprising finding: the brand element should be big—really big—much larger than brands usually appear in print ads.

The eye-trackers in the Behavioral Lab have also been used to investigate search on shelves, optimal brand placement in television commercials, and the emotional expressions on the faces of people watching commercials and movie trailers. Today eye-tracking technology is integrated into consumer devices such as computers, billboards, phones and televisions, so in the future an enormous amount of information about eye movements will be available for researchers like Wedel. Someday, says Wedel, interactive ads will use eye-tracking to tell marketers in real-time what you think of their products.

Dean Alex Triantis, in introducing Wedel, noted that he is an extraordinary scholar. Wedel has published 170 papers and 4 books and has been cited 10,000 times by other scholars around the world. He has received the Hendrik Muller Lifetime award from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, the Gilbert A. Churchill award from American Marketing Association, and is a Fellow of INFORMS and the American Statistical Association. But his students prize him for his teaching skills and his ability to bring cutting edge research into the classroom – with a side of biology.

Learn more about Smith’s research with eye-tracking devices. 

Learn more about the Smith School’s Behavioral Lab. 

- Rebecca Winner, Office of Marketing Communications

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, MS in business, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.