Advertising in the Age of Distraction


Last Thanksgiving, the food devoured and the dishes cleaned, I distinctly remember sitting down to watch one of the football games, then glancing at my phone for Facebook updates and new email. All at once, an advertising tsunami hit, as if every brand I’d ever encountered was flooding me with messages in anticipation of sales. Clothes and TVs. Mobile devices and kids’ toys. Even those candles I’d bought for my wife a couple months earlier.

In that moment, however fleeting, the playing field was clear and the challenges for brands on full display: There may be more ways to reach consumers than ever before, but those consumers are harder to engage than ever before, too.

While my experience was in the key early stages of the holiday season, the challenges are not limited to the holidays. Brands are facing the same challenges every day, and the general acceleration of commerce is going to make this a permanent phenomenon.

Marketers need to know, more than ever, how to break through the clutter.

The proliferation of digital devices, coupled with a deluge of short, “snackable” content, has given consumers greater choice than ever in how and where they consume media. That’s led to more distractions and ever-shrinking attention spans. A couple of pieces of data illustrate the point:

  1. We use media more than ever before. Over the last 13 years alone, according to Nielsen research, average time spent using consumer media has increased from 45 to 65 hours per week. That’s a nearly 45% increase.
  2. We switch platforms more than ever before. In another study, Digital Natives (born 1990 or later) switched media platforms 27 times per hour, on average—or about every other minute. Those born before 1990 switched 17 times per hour on average—not quite as jumpy, but pretty jumpy nevertheless. The results translate into a 30% decrease in attention span.

So, even as brand managers have more opportunity to “meet” consumers, those consumers are busy meeting other brands, too. That means less time for the necessary interaction that leads to a sale. The “attention economy” has left brands battling for consumer engagement in every corner of our lives—from TV and mobile devices to planes, trains, and automobiles.

How can marketers know whether their creative was strong enough to beat the rapid succession of advertising and make an emotional connection with the consumer?

It was hard enough in the pre-digital age, when surveys were the order of the day, but asking questions of busy consumers isn’t at all enough today. To break through in this complex environment, marketers must have an understanding of how our brains process information in the modern media landscape.

In the game of telephone, the correct message is rarely relayed accurately down the line. Picture that same game while everyone has a mobile device in their hands (ironically, a telephone, but they aren’t using it for that). Our brains, guided by our inherent biases, do not nearly have the ability to consciously process everything that happens around us.

Welcome to the province of consumer neuroscience.

The human brain has more than 80 billion neurons, each one making between 10,000 to 20,000 connections. It’s a complex machine, one of the most complex in the known universe. The key is to exploit the fact that the brain processes information as it attends to it, and tags the bits it finds emotionally relevant for long-term storage. And what is stored in our memory is most likely to influence our future behavior.

That is the consumer neuroscience definition of engagement: attention to something that emotionally impacts you, triggers a new (or reinforces an existing) memory, and influences future behavior.

Our emotion system is on all the time. It’s constantly evaluating information and tagging the relevant bits for storage. So it’s our emotion system that helps guide us to approach something that we see has value, run away from things that we don’t value or see as a threat, and ignore just about everything else. The fact that you probably don’t know this (unless you are a neuroscientist) leads us to another critical point: Most of this process occurs below conscious awareness.

How do marketers take advantage of this information, considering that most of brain processing is non-conscious? Questions won’t do it: “What were you thinking unconsciously just now?” won’t get you very far.

Consumer neuroscience delivers insights that go deeper than asking someone a question or having people fill out a survey or turn a dial. It delivers non-conscious, unbiased, neurobiological-based responses. It uses tools that allow marketers to capture the key ingredients of engagement: attention, emotion and memory activation.

As humans, we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who occasionally act emotionally. But modern neuroscience tells us the opposite is most likely true: We’re emotional creatures who occasionally act rationally.

Engaging the modern consumer means learning to create messages that emotionally resonate.

As a famous poet once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This article first appeared in

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About Author

Carl Marci

Dr. Carl Marci is chief neuroscientist of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience.

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