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April 1, 2010
Your Attention, Please -- If You Can Spare Any

Is there a place for advertising in a distracted world?

Are you going to read this whole column? Really? Bless you.

Hell, I can’t even write this column in one sitting. I write them in bits and pieces.

I’ve always had a notoriously short attention span. Now it’s miniscule at best. I can’t keep up with today’s information pace. I’ll be checking a Twitter stream and answering e-mail while my TV is on in the background at home. That keeps me plenty distracted, and I don’t even have a family to deal with.

In this environment, how we can make ads that command people’s attention at all? And if we can’t do it with advertising, how do we disguise our marketing so people will pay attention?

I actually did something last month that I hadn’t done in a long, long time: I stopped and read a full-page magazine ad. A real, long-copy, direct response ad for Rosetta Stone, the language-learning software. Something about it just stopped me and commanded my attention. It was incredibly well-written, made its point perfectly, and sold me on its teaching methods -- well, it would have if I had the immediate desire to learn another language. However, I can’t help think I was one of the few people who actually read the ad. (Here’s a sign of the times: The advertising students I teach think a long-copy ad is one with three paragraphs.)

Usually, you see a lot of those types of ads in in-flight airplane magazines. Of course, that’s because marketers know that fliers have nowhere else to go and nothing to do. Now with in-flight Wi-Fi becoming more common, even passengers stuck in a tin can above the clouds aren’t as captive an audience as they once were.

ADD is everywhere. I’ve had dinner with six friends where we all kept looking at our phones constantly during the meal. It’s becoming normal, but it’s not natural. As human beings, we’re simply not physiologically wired for a constant stream of information and images the way we get them now. I think most of us are struggling to cope, no matter how much we say we embrace this type of change.

The advertising agency business is struggling with it internally as well. I can’t remember the last client meeting I attended where someone didn’t surreptitiously look at their Blackberry or iPhone to see what other messages they had.

One of the gimmicks we’ve used at agencies in the past is when we presented an ad, say a print ad, we stuck it in the middle of whatever magazine it was scheduled to appear in as a demonstration of how well it stood out. Nowadays, when we can do business with any client anywhere, we often don’t have the luxury of face-to-face meetings, so when we send PDFs to clients for approval or get on a conference call to present an idea, there’s even less of a real-world representation. At those moments, no one’s thinking about whether folks will fast-forward their DVRs or click over to another Web site. There’s no context, just the urgency of getting it done. Clients think their ad, and the urgency of their sales message, is what matter most -- and rightfully so, for it’s their money -- but consumers don’t think that way.

As a countermeasure, it’s also why advertising has become obsessed with being entertaining -- or becoming pure entertainment for its own sake. We know there are too many distractions in modern society, so we pursue the idea of making our marketing messages the distraction itself. Not all brands can command attention with entertainment, particularly service-oriented business or B-to-B clients. It’s simply to far removed from their core mission. Most of them have enough trouble making their core products, services, and customer service working well.

Clients know they need to make an immediate impact. Consequently, their first instinct is to have each marketing message consist of some form of immediate “BUY!” right then and there.

Marketing these days consists of the hard sell, the soft sell, and the no sell. Few agencies have the luxury of serving clients that stay committed to only one of those, but what won’t change is that most large clients, under pressure from Wall Street, are looking for immediate sales gains and profits. If their products are in big-box stores, they often have the data that reports sales on a day-to-day basis. They don’t have the luxury of waiting for ad campaigns and other marketing efforts to pay off in the long term. There is no long term for them.

To be effective, we’re going to have to find ways that sell while providing some reward to consumers -- in the form of entertainment, knowledge, or something else of value, and we have to do it fast. That's not an easy task, and it's one that involves a lot of guesswork and no guarantees of effectiveness.

Even as professionals in the ad industry, we are also consumers under the same information-and-image barrage. It helps to keep that in mind. Hopefully, our minds can stay focused through all the distractions.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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