Picking and Choosing What We Pay Attention To

First published October 9, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In a single day, you will be assaulted by hundreds of thousands of discrete bits of information. I’m writing this from a hotel room on the corner of 43rd and 8th in New York. Just a simple three-block walk down 8th Avenue will present me with hundreds bits of information: signs, posters, flyers, labels, brochures. By the time I go to sleep this evening, I will be exposed to over 3,000 advertising messages. Every second of our lives, we are immersed in a world of detail and distraction, all vying for our attention. Even the metaphors we use, such as “paying attention,” show that we consider attention a valuable commodity to be allocated wisely.


Lining Up for the Prefrontal Cortex

Couple this with the single-mindedness of the prefrontal cortex, home of our working memory. There, we work on one task at a time. We are creatures driven by a constant stack of goals and objectives. We pull our big goals out, one and a time, often break it into sub goals and tasks, and then pursue these with the selective engagement of the prefrontal cortex. The more demanding the task, the more we have to shut out the deluge of detail screaming for our attention.

Our minds have an amazingly effective filter that continually scans our environment, subconsciously monitoring all this detail, and then moving it into our attentive focus if our sub cortical alarm system determines we should give it conscious attention. So, as we daydream our way through our lives, we don’t unconsciously plow through pedestrians as they step in front of us. We’re jolted into conscious awareness until the crisis is dealt with, working memory is called into emergency duty, and then, post crisis, we have to try to pick up the thread of what we were doing before. This example shows that working memory is not a multi-tasker. It’s impossible to continue to mentally balance your check book while you’re trying to avoid smashing into the skateboarding teen who just careened off the side walk. Only one task at a time, thank you.

You Looked, but Did You See?

The power of our ability to focus and filter out extraneous detail is a constant source of amazement for me. We’ve done several engagement studies where we have captured physical interactions with an ad (tracked through an eye tracker) on a web page of several seconds in duration, then have participants swear there was no ad there. They looked at the ad, but their mind was somewhere else, quite literally. The extreme example of this can be found in an amusing experiment done by University of Illinois  cognitive psychologist  Daniel J. Simons and now enjoying viral fame through YouTube. Go ahead and check it out  before you read any further if you haven’t already seen it. (Count the number of times the white team passes the ball)

This selective perception is the door through which we choose to let the world into our conscious (did you see the Gorilla in the video? If not, go back and try again). And its door that advertisers have been trying to pry through for the past 200 years at least. We are almost never focused on advertising, so, in order for it to be effective, it has to convince us to divert our attention from what we’re currently doing. The strategies behind this diversion have become increasingly sophisticated. Advertising can play to our primal cues. A sexy woman is almost always guaranteed to divert a man’s attention. Advertising can throw a road block in front of our conscious objectives, forcing us to pass through them. TV ads work this way, literally bringing our stream of thought to a screeching halt and promising to pick it up again “right after these messages”. The hope is that there is enough engagement momentum for us to keep focused on the 30 second blurb for some product guaranteed to get our floors/teeth/shirts whiter.

Advertising’s Attempted Break-In

The point is, almost all advertising never enjoys the advantage of having working memory actively engaged in trying to understand its message. Every variation has to use subterfuge, emotion or sheer force to try to hammer its way into our consciousness. This need has led to the industry searching for a metric that attempts to measure the degree to which our working memory is on the job. In the industry, we call it engagement. The ARF defined engagement as “turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding media context.” Really, engagement is better described as smashing through the selective perception filter.

In a recent study, ARF acknowledged the importance of emotion as a powerful way to sneak past the guardhouse and into working memory. Perhaps more importantly, the study shows the power of emotion to ensure memories make it from short term to long term memory: “Emotion underlies engagement which affects memory of experience, thinking about the experience, and subsequent behavior.  Emotion is not a peripheral phenomenon but involves people completely.  Emotions have motivational properties, to the extent that people seek to maximize the experience of positive emotions and to minimize the experience of negative emotions.  Emotion is fundamental to engagement.  Emotion directs attention to the causally significant aspects of the experience, serves to encode and classify the ‘unusual’ (unexpected or novel) in memory, and promotes persisting rehearsal of the event-memory. In this way, thinking/feeling/memory articulates the experience to guide future behaviors.”

With this insight into the marketing mindset, honed by decades of hammering away at our prefrontal cortex, it’s little wonder why the marketing community has struggled with where search fits in the mix. Search plays by totally different neural rules. And that means its value as a branding tool also has to play by those same rules.  I’ll look at that next week.

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