What draws the eye in advertisement pictures?

We live in a world covered thick as a jungle by advertisements. Writers, designers, and publishers alike regularly ask themselves, “How should we draw attention to our content amid everyone else’s?” Every little tweak to win a viewer’s attention matters. 


The 2016 article “Visual Attention toward Tourism Photographs with Text: An Eye-tracking Study,” written by Qian Li, Zhuowei Joy Huang, and Kiel Christianson, suggests that naturally embedded text in photographs has the power to capture visual attention and elicit positive responses from viewers. Naturally embedded text is defined as words present in a scene and captured by a camera without any photo editing (on signs, engraved in buildings, etc.). According to this study, naturally embedded text in a viewer’s native language will hold the viewer’s visual attention for longer and increase the likelihood that they’ll say, “This photograph arouses my interest to this place” and “I would like to see more about this place” (Li, Huang, and Christianson 2016, 246).

Participants in this study were native Chinese speakers. Researchers asked them to view 24 photographs with naturally embedded text. Some of the photos had text in the participants’ native language—Chinese—and others had text in Arabic, a language participants did not know. Furthermore, some photos had a single instance of text, whereas others had multiple. To eliminate confounding variables, all the photos were of man-made landscapes (like cityscapes, ruins, or edifices). Participants looked at all 24 pictures through an eye tracker and then took a survey asking them to assess each one for persuasiveness, intrigue, and informational quality. 

“Viewers reported higher perceived advertising effectiveness toward the photographs that included text in the known language.”

Li, Huang, and Christianson (2016)

The eye tracker collected data regarding where (fixation location), how much (fixation count), and how long (fixation duration) each participant’s eyes fixated on a single point. Results on fixation location showed that naturally embedded text captured participants’ visual attention more than any other element in the photographs, including roads, greenery, people, or the sky. Fixation count and duration data showed that participants viewed photos with text in Chinese for longer than those in Arabic (approximately 820 milliseconds longer). Similarly, they viewed photos with a single textual message longer than those with multiple textual messages (approximately 1150 milliseconds longer). Survey data corroborated both of these findings because photographs with Chinese text were perceived as significantly more effective than those with Arabic text. Participants also rated advertising effectiveness to be higher for photographs with a single textual message than those with multiple textual messages” (Li, Huang, and Christianson 2016, 252).


Many companies believe that their content is only as valuable as the engagement fostered among viewers, and the principles suggested in this study could help increase both engagement and value for content in many industries, especially journalism, advertising, and travel. Journalists and others choosing photographs to supplement their content can use photographs with naturally embedded text to gain viewers’ attention. Photographs with text can be useful cover photos, feature images, etc. But content creators should also beware: by choosing a photograph with naturally embedded text, you automatically draw viewers’ attention to the text more than other elements in the photo. If your goal is to have readers look at something besides the text, consider editing it out.

To read more about naturally embedded text, read the full article:

Li, Qian, Zhuowei Joy Huang, and Kiel Christianson. 2016. “Visual attention toward tourism photographs with text: An eye-tracking study.” Tourism Management 54: 243–258. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2015.11.017.  

 —Jamie Kathryn LeSueur, Editing Research


Find more research

Take a look at Rik Pieters and Michel Wedel’s (2004) article for insights about the value of different advertising elements: “Attention capture and transfer in advertising: Brand, pictorial, and text-size effects.” Journal of Marketing 68, no. 2: 36–50. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30161988.  

Check out the article by Shaojun Kong, Zhenfang Huang, Noel Scott, Zi’ang Zhang, and Zhixiang Shen (2018) to learn why tourism ads with a photograph, a text description, and a price are the most effective: “Web advertisement effectiveness evaluation: Attention and memory.” Journal of Vacation Marketing 25, no. 1: 130–146. https://doi.org/10.1177/1356766718757272.