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The Fragility Of Attention

Attention is thought to be the most precious commodity in advertising. Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent to buy advertising time in the midst of compelling programming on TV. Advertising, advertorial and commercial featured content is bought in print simply to position brands in the minds of their consumers.

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However evolution has prepared us very differently for attention. Humans can only attend do one thing at a time if it requires focused attention. If we are multi-tasking, Each task that requires attention is attended to singularly and then managed by switching back and forth to other attention seeking tasks. It is no surprise that multitasking is not a commonly encountered capability. 

 Evolutional programed us in this manner because our cognitive apparatus is simply not fit to deal with a blizzard of stimuli. If deluged and overwhelmed with info-processing how would we have become quickly aware of an approaching threat? Equal attention is simply a mortal risk in that context. Our brain was evolved to save our life from predators, not to appreciate advertising.

So, has evolution closed all chances for advertising and brand building? Most certainly not! 

 If at all, it has made us ready for something wonderfully more complex and useful – it’s called “low involvement processing “and it happens unconsciously. 

The powerful engines of our cerebral processing are engaged subconsciously. These exceptions help us process 24/7 and not have to react to every sound we hear or every visual that we see. From a primitive instinctual perspective,shallow connection heuristics matter a lot more. Feelings are reliable shortcuts for thinking. If your food smells unusual you don’t put it in your mouth! You don’t evaluate the foul-smelling to decode edibility. You don’t process to compare that smell to other foul smells encountered earlier. Hence low conscious processing does not mean blindness to tone ,feel or other sensory perception. To the contrary, it can heighten the sensory appreciation. 

When consumers do shallow or subconscious processing they are in fact relying on a deeper, richer , complex , more densely associative memory structure than when they’re actively processing rational messages. 

A significant research on the relationship of attention, learning , processing and memory was done by Fergus Craik & Robert Lockhart “ levels of processing: retrospective commentary on the framework for memory research “. The conclusion of this research was that shallow processing also leads to categorisation of different types of information based on different levels of processing attention and that eventually it has a bearing on short-term and long-term memory. It also has a deeper connection to phonetic, semantic and structural sensibility - sound,text and look respectively. 

The outcome of subsequent research in this direction now points to evidence that shallow, subconscious, inattentive processing can lead to long-lasting cognitive associations that cause learning. Further, it is clear that such sub conscious processes happen quickly and automatically.  It doesn’t choke your conscious attention or processing bandwidth. Since our world is saturated with brands and brand imagery every encounter is in connected in a web of associations and associative markers. What truly exists in the subconscious mind is not known but it exists for sure because we know that it triggers thoughts, feelings and actions. Another way to think of this phenomenon on is to study the submersion, receding and fogging out of active memory. We can each name a favourite brand say,X and we can describe the role it plays in our lives. We can  personify the brand and detail our emotional responses with reference to this brand .  But , almost never can we play back the chronology of our association. We will not be able to detail when we first learned of the brand and what or who influenced our choice. We wont recall all the advertising we have seen. We can’t explain our learning about the brand has strengthened our preference.  All these are half baked, unclear, vague and unverifiable. So even our actively learned, attentively imbibed learning retreats into a vast subconscious. The longer lasting, better preserved associations are actually in the subconscious mind. Our gut is not dictated to by our rational brain. In fact more often, our gut can override and suppress the rational brain.

Finally, brand building is like putting out content in a newspaper. Each column inch is packed with text and imagery competing for attention with every other column inch. So whatever you choose – opinion, sports, business, arts, politics; it is because of self-selection. You will note is for those parts which don’t interest as we are blind we have ‘attentional blindness’. The more enraptured we are paying attention to one thing, the more we blank out on everything else.  Daniel Simons and Chritopher Chabris became world famous because of their “gorilla experiment “. It proved that people can be so focused on tasks as to be blind to almost everything such as even a man in a Gorilla suit working amidst them  (“Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events”)

To conclude – if you are avoiding the lure of top-rated, crazily expensive, attentive audience advertising plan bought off a media rate card you may actually be doing a smart thing after all. But ensure that by other means you are diffused and present in the consumer ecosystem. If you are not like a mist, humidity, fragrance , the subconscious mind may or may not fully register your presence. 

Remember a sizeable part of success is because of the subconscious inattentive audience.

Did you pay attention ?



Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Shubhranshu Singh

The author is a global marketer, story teller, brand builder, columnist, and business leader. His interests include studying social change, impact of technology on consumer lives, understanding young consumers, history and politics.

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