Do the Test: Selective Attention and Advertising

Before you read this article, feel free to look at the following video clip if you haven’t seen it before (using sound is recommended for more effect).

This amusing ad goes to illustrate one point in cognitive psychology very well: We filter out a lot of things. Most people who see this clip for the first time will not have noticed the “extra information”.

Selective Attention

We have limited visual working memory. And in order to focus on something and lighten our memory load, we unconsciously apply what is called “selective attention” to filter out any distractions.

Take this classic example: you are in a room full of people, where there are a dozen simultaneous conversations. You will filter out most of what is being said to focus on your interlocutor’s conversation. But if your name is mentioned by someone else in the seemingly indistinguishable blend of words outside your own conversation, you are likely to pick it up and focus your attention to where it came from.

Selective attention has obvious implications in advertising. Every marketer wants to grab our attention. But how can advertisers grab customers’ attention if we simply filter out most of stimuli coming at us?

There are considered to be two types of factors that can gain our selective attention.

The conversation example above uses what can be called “internal factors”. We pay attention what is relevant to us; our needs and interests. These can be conscious personal needs and interests as well as more deep-rooted unconscious ones. Say you are interested in mobile phones and are reading a newspaper. You’re likely to pay attention to an ad about mobile phones while filtering out ads that have no meaning to you. Messages can also answer less conscious or unspoken needs. For example security, love and actualization (not to mention sex)…

External factors are those that can gain our attention regardless of our internal needs or interest. In visual communications, (magazine advertising or in Web sites for example), it can be the use of bright colors or larger text. There are many other types of external factors, but the idea is that if every advertiser takes the same approach, and every ad or message tries to grab your attention, you will filter them all out, because in the end none stand out, all being equally attention-grabbing.

In a world of advertisement overflow, people filter out almost everything. So how can you retain people’s attention? : by focusing on their internal factors of attention. This seems obvious enough, but there are still few advertisers able to stand out and create a positive impact.

What Constitutes Interest?

Understanding what constitutes internal factors of attention requires careful research. And this goes beyond researching surface-level interests and needs that target customers are able to formulate through direct questioning. The key is in also understanding more unconscious deep-rooted value systems through more advanced research such as projective techniques.

Regarding the particular ad which made the excuse to this article, I am not sure if it made people focus on and recall the intended topic (road safety for cyclists), but it certainly succeeded at being a good piece of viral marketing.

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David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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