Research challenges thoughts on ad placement

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


Greetings from London as usual. 

In this newsletter, I want to highlight two really important aspects of the advertising business which we as publishers need to fully grasp when dealing with our advertisers and agencies. The first is the issue of ad placement and why it’s important. 

Then I want to cover a crucial factor which emerged out of the recent, annual advertising creativity event in the South of France, The Cannes Lions Festival.

See if your sales teams can relate to these significant industry matters discussed below. 

The importance of ad placement 

Placement of client ads on a news publisher’s pages has been a contentious issue for years. Placing them next to editorial covering, say, murders, cars crashes, negative stock market stories, etc., can be problematic as our advertisers can be sometimes unwilling to place their ads alongside certain these “hard” news items or topics, fearing the products advertised will gain unwanted, negative associations.

I read recently about an experiment in which participants read a number of differing articles with ads placed beside them. Using eye-tracking technology (from Lumens Research), there was a measurement of the attention readers paid to every article and ad. 

Research shows an advertiser's concern about being placed next to hard or difficult news isn't warranted.
Research shows an advertiser's concern about being placed next to hard or difficult news isn't warranted.

Results showed articles that captured a reader’s attention also increased their attention to ads on the same page, enhancing recall of the brand as well as purchase probability. 

But, importantly, the type of content (i.e. whether it as “hard” news or  “soft” news, had no impact on an ad’s effectiveness. 

Advertisers’ unwillingness to feature their ads next to “sensitive” news items has worrying implications for the idea around editorial freedom. 

Advertiser “black listing” or “blocks lists” could potentially soften the media appetite to cover hard-hitting articles, and, in turn, soften the news agenda, too, as many publishers will chase ad-generated revenue. Agencies will use block lists of particular subjects or words to prevent their client brands appearing beside news they deem unsuitable (e.g. terrorism, shock, or sexual content). 

But some would say these lists are a blunt instrument with an odd consequence, preventing ads from appearing next to highly popular (even if perhaps squeamish) items, making the more fearful brands miss out on desired exposure.

Previous research reveals some news media outlets tweak their content to suit advertisers’ preferences to avoid upsetting businesses (source: Beattie 2020/2021). 

This practice became more prevalent during the early part of the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, individuals were spending enormous amounts of time online, and visits to online media sites rocketed by 50% (source: ComScore 2020). However, following two decades of growth, advertising revenues during that springtime, fell by 23%–35% (source: Statista 2023).

This fall in revenue can’t be explained by the pandemic alone. Smaller spending on advertising was also due to commercial fears that brands would somehow acquire negative associations linked to the “hard” news of the day — COVID doom and gloom! 

Research results 

Lumen Research technology, which processes high-resolution images to calculate an individual’s gaze and eye movements, was able to precisely show how long people spent reading chosen articles and how much attention they paid to the ads displayed adjacent to those articles.

They showed that not only do readers pay more attention to ads featured alongside more captivating articles but also that ads placed beside captivating articles were more effective in inducing purchases.

The experiment allowed them to measure how engaged readers were in the article and how much time they looked at the ads as a result. 

The main findings — that ads are just as effective whether they are placed next to hard news or soft news and that engaging content generates attention to ads and influences subsequent purchase decisions regardless of its subject — challenges the notion of block lists. 

The more attention readers paid to advertising, the more likely they were to remember and then purchase that brand, regardless of whether the ad had been placed next to hard news. On average, every 2.76 seconds of attention paid to an ad increased the probability of purchase by about 2% — therefore proving that advertising next to hard news has no significant impact on an reader’s decision to buy that brand as a result. 

The implications

If we can discard the rationale for the wide use of block lists, this could help media groups resist any pressure from advertisers and continue to report on the hard-hitting topics. (This to be communicated as part of our consultative selling approach?).  

This research result also casts serious doubt on the value of those “clickbait-style” headlines. Wisdom indicates that once readers are tempted towards what turns out to be a “flimsy” story, they may focus more on an ad …  in the absence of what they feel would be engaging content. But the Lumens research suggests this isn’t the case. The less captivating the story, the less engaged a reader will be in any accompanying ad. 

Maybe this can all help repel the myths we see around advertiser reluctance and maybe too it can be just one more arrow in your sales team’s quiver to hit the client base with if they suspect a cutting back on advertising spend, based on what is, false information.

Further reading

2023’s festival of advertising creativity

I want to mention Cannes, France, particularly the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, which recently ended on the French Riviera. It focuses on the great and the good in the world of adverting and on how creativity drives advertising from an ROI and engagement point of view. A subject very dear to my own heart.

Attention metrics 

One of the companies attending was a respected UK-based communications agency Six Sells, which works with many brands writing content for a variety of digital/social media channels. 

I caught up with its CEO Mike Nicholson on his return. He revealed to me an interesting fact: He was surprised to learn the ad industry still doesn’t have recognised, agreed-upon definitions around attention metrics.

Media advertising lacks a human auditing system — or system for attention metrics — that could be helpful to its future.
Media advertising lacks a human auditing system — or system for attention metrics — that could be helpful to its future.

For Mike, he summarised so well what this is:

Active attention:

  • Definition: Did a real human look at the ad directly?
  • Source of data: Human.
  • Measurement: Eye-tracking tech.
  • Pros: It’s real, human data, so the most accurate.
  • Cons: Panel-based so can’t be measured deterministically, at scale, on live campaigns.


  • Definition: Did the ad get served onto a screen and in such a way that a human could have seen it if they paid attention?
  • Source of data: Adtech.
  • Pros: Machines can measure probabilistic data, in flight, and at scale.
  • Cons: Not an accurate predictor of human attention, because one, being able to see something and two, actually seeing it, are often two very different things.


  • Definition: Simply put, time-in-view is the duration of viewability. How long was the ad on-screen and in such a way that a human could see it if they paid attention?
  • Source of data: Adtech.
  • Pros: Machines can measure probabilistic data, in flight, and at scale.
  • Cons: Not an accurate predictor of human attention, because one, being able to see something for a period of time and two, actually seeing it are, again, very different things.

Human attention audit 

I asked Mike what would he recommend for the future. He said: “Personally, I would love to see us move towards a future where every Web site or app that wants to compete for premium advertising investment has a full human attention audit, once a quarter ideally (like BARB does for TV or RAJAR for radio), which gives a floor and a ceiling of actual, observed human attention, measured in milliseconds via independent eye-tracking studies and conducted for each major ad unit on the site/app.” 

He continued: 

“Each site or app can then be issued a rating at the macro level, as well as for each of their ‘hero’ ad placements. Probabilistic data on viewability and time-in-view is certainly better than nothing, but eye-tracking studies have repeatedly found that time-in-view can be a sign of distraction as well as a sign of attention.” 

An interesting perspective and a subject to return to in due course here in this newsletter. 

But for now, Mike concluded: “On a not-unrelated note, I would also say that we all need to up our game with ad creativity online because the difference between getting 0.1 seconds of attention in a premium ad placement and 2.1 seconds in that same placement is the ad creative.” 

This, of course, demonstrates the fine margins between success and failure on ad campaigns and the fact that we need to ensure we are on the same page as our clients (be it direct or with agencies). 

It’s very complicated to measure all this at scale. There can be too many channels and placements (especially when you build in programmatic and social, too). Every impression is customised to each individual. It constitutes a measurement nightmare. But we will get there. The ad industry needs to get more heads knocked together and decide what’s best/right for the good of all in the ad chain, publishers included.

But, be sure that demonstrating our awareness of this and being part of that discussion from a media perspective shows, once again, that we can be seen as a trusted source of knowledge and a respected “go to” when it comes to the future of advertising.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Mark Challinor, based in London and lead for the INMA Advertising Initiative. Mark will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media advertising. Sign up for the newsletter here.

This newsletter is a public face of the Advertising Initiative by INMA, outlined here.

E-mail Mark at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions or follow him on Twitter (@challinor).

About Mark Challinor

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