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Part I: The Not-So-Invisible Gorilla

Why advertising still works in the attention economy

Photo by Valentin Jorel on Unsplash

You already know how the opening paragraph goes: attention economy, advertising audiences are more distracted than ever, insert some worrying statistics here, etc. 

However, contrary to what many are saying, advertising still works. In fact, it’s more important now to understand how it works. Doing so will anchor you against the unrelenting waves of new platforms, fads and gurus.

Yes, times and technology have changed tremendously. Your audiences’ minds, not so much.

Do you see the gorilla?

When talking about how supposedly limited and narrow our attention is, this famous experiment tends to be brought up. Participants in the experiment were made to watch a video of some people passing two basketballs around and had to keep track of the number of passes.

The point of this experiment wasn’t about how good the participants were at counting and remembering but whether they noticed a man in a gorilla suit walk into the frame, beat its chest, before walking off. About 36% of participants didn’t notice the gorilla.

It’s easy to spot the gorilla now, but apparently not when you’re engrossed in counting the number of passes.

If a third of people didn’t notice a highly conspicuous gorilla, what chance does advertising stand? But before we proceed, we have to understand that by asking those participants if they’ve seen a gorilla, the experimenters were testing their explicit attention and memory.

Different types of attention

Explicit attention is the kind of attention participants deliberately applied when counting the number of passes. When asked to track the number of aerial and bounced passes separately, more participants failed to notice the gorilla. Makes sense, as doing so demands more explicit attention.

Explicit attention is indeed limited and narrow. If marketing can only work when they successfully target audiences’ explicit attention, all of us in the industry are in big trouble. 

Fortunately for us, human beings are also capable of implicit attention. This is the kind of attention that happens automatically or unconsciously. This is the kind of attention that influenced wine shoppers to buy more German wine when German music was playing in the shop or to buy more French wine when French music was playing, as per another famous study.

But can advertising work with implicit attention?

Prof. Chan Yun Yoo, then at the University of Kentucky, wanted to find out too. Without telling participants the real purpose of his experiment, he divided them into three groups, as summarised in the diagram below.

Group 1 was the control group (not exposed to any ads), Group 2 simulated audiences that paid some attention to advertising and Group 3 minimal or no attention. One of the three banner ads on the web pages was advertising a fictitious online movie retailer.

One day later, the participants were asked to choose from a list the online movie retailers they’d consider buying from. Group 2 was about twice as likely as Group 1 to consider the retailer advertised the day before. Okay, advertising creates awareness which then creates consideration. Nothing too groundbreaking. 

What’s surprising is that Groups 2 and 3 were almost equally likely to consider the advertised retailer, despite the latter specifically instructed to focus only on the text content of the web pages. 

This is just one of the many experiments that show how advertising can still work with minimal or no attention paid. Advertising in video games has also been found to be noticed and remembered implicitly by gamers who, of course, were paying more attention to the action rather than the ads. 

Attention and memory don’t need our permission to work

Our attention and memory can work even when we’re not actively trying to pay attention or memorise. A meta-analysis of 21 empirical studies found that divided attention doesn’t negatively affect the formation and recalling of implicit memory as much as common sense would tell us.

More supporting evidence comes in the form of teaching the “errorless learning” approach, in which learners use their implicit memory rather than explicit memory to learn new skills. This technique has been shown to be extremely useful in rehabilitating patients with memory impairment. When applied to learning golf skills, errorless learners performed better than regular learners.

By learning to write the number 7 through errorless learning, the student is essentially baking that knowledge into his implicit memory.

Implicit memory is surprisingly durable too. Amnesiacs have been found to remember new implicitly learned skills, despite not remembering having learned them (refer to p. 509 of this paper). The superior durability of implicit memory has also been found in an advertising-related study.

It’s easy to see what the implications are for marketing. Especially considering how long-term advertising works by implanting and reinforcing a brand in its audiences’ minds. This implicit memory then gets brought up in a consumer’s consideration set when it’s time to buy. Advertising may be more powerful than many of us think. 

To be more precise, certain types of advertising

In order to be implicitly absorbed by its audiences, the advertising must be present in their environment, i.e. not blocked. Perhaps it’s no surprise that out-of-home (OOH) advertising has actually been growing. Even predominantly digital brands like Google and Amazon have realised its power and are among the top OOH advertisers.

It’s worth seriously thinking about “always-on” media platforms like OOH again.

And more importantly, the kind of advertising that can work implicitly has to be long-term in nature (i.e. brand-building). 

Short-term CTA-focused advertising absolutely needs attention to work because its effectiveness is dependent on the audience taking some sort of action after viewing it. 

But long-term advertising is another story—it doesn’t need to create immediate action, it’s about implanting your brand in your audiences’ minds. It works even when the audience isn’t paying attention and it may actually work better that way. Why and how? We’ll discuss this in part 2 of this article, which will be about how emotional advertising can skip past audiences’ lack of attention…and trust.

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Arthur Koh
Written By

Arthur Koh is a mass behaviour consultant based in Singapore. He combines insights from behavioural economics, network science, social psychology, and marcom to bring the mass audience in touch with organisational goals. Follow him on LinkedIn or his website.

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