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The Eyes Have It

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, specialty master's, 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.

Apr 21, 2014
World Class Faculty & Research


Michel Wedel

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, the newest Smith faculty to be named a 2013–14 University of Maryland Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, delivered a fascinating lesson on eyes, eye movements and ad effectiveness on Oct. 23, 2013.

“You can really only see clearly what is directly in the center of your vision, about the size of a thumbnail,” Wedel explained. 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 terribly dizzy if your brain didn't ignore that movement. That adds up to about 15 minutes of blindness a day, spaced out in milliseconds.

Wedel demonstrated where the human eye jumps and fixates when someone looks at a print ad. “The average ad in a magazine gets an exposure of two to three seconds,” said Wedel. “What can advertisers communicate in that time?”

Plenty, 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 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 were hidden in the lower edge of a large desktop monitor; the cameras tracked the head and eye movements of the person sitting at the computer. Eye trackers provide 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.

Wedel has studied thousands of print ads using eye trackers to determine the optimal size of elements in ads. How large should the pictorial element and the text elements be? Where should they be? One surprising finding: The brand element should be much larger than it usually appears 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 who has published 170 papers and four 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, Trianis said, Wedel’s students prize him for his teaching skills and his ability to bring cutting-edge research into the classroom — with a side of biology.