Inattentional Blindness, aka “I Know Why The Banner Alien Dances”

22 06 2009

A brief history of advertising.

Stage I: “The Boredom Is Killing Me. I’ll Look At Anything.” It’s the early 20th century. Newspapers are a critical defense against the ennui of living in our one-horse towns. We’ll give our attention to anything.  Even if it’s just a baldness-fighting Hygienic Vacuum Cap.

baldness

Stage II: “I’m Beat. I Can’t Wait To Relax With Some TV.” It’s the midpoint of the 20th century. We’ve suffered two world wars and a Great Depression.  We’re sick of death, of dancing_cigarettescrisis, of worry. We don’t want the media to stimulate us anymore.

What do we want?

Escapism, entertainment, fantasy. Part of that is looking at ads for the good life, now that it’s here.

Hey look, there’s Milton Berle in a dress!  There’s a dancing Old Gold cigarette pack!

We’re not as eager to give away our attention, but advertisers can still grab us if they dance well.

Stage III: “Don’t Bug Me, I’m Doing Something.” It’s the early part of the 21st century. Unlike past media, the Internet is not just a “view” medium. It’s a “do” medium.

We can find anything, whether it’s how to install a floating modular water-resistant polyethylene subfloor system or the video of Auto-Tune the News where they sing about lettuce regulation.

dancing_alienI Know Why The Banner Alien Dances

This is why I find the dancing banner alien such a poignant figure. He’s the digital descendent of the dancing cigarette pack, begging for our attention.

But he has a sad, existential  fate.  The people he’s dancing for aren’t ignoring him. They literally can’t see him.

They have Inattentional Blindness.

Isn’t This Just A New Term For The Same Old Stuff?

Nope. This isn’t about advertising clutter (which apparently dates back to 1759)  or Steve Rubel’s Attention Crash.

Inattentional Blindness is a very real phenomenon discovered by psychologists Arien Mack, PhD, of the New School for Social Research, and the late Irvin Rock, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley.  Mack and Rock’s experiments proved that people whose attention was focused on one thing often failed to notice an unexpected object, even when it appeared in the center of their field of vision.

“I came away from our studies convinced that there is no conscious perception without attention,” Mack says.

I believe Inattentional Blindness is a major factor in why ad clickthrough rates have plummeted near zero.  When we’re focused on finding something specific, we’re blind to everything else. And it doesn’t help that we all know exactly where the useless stuff (aka “banner ads”) lies on the page. The ads are — in every sense — peripheral to the task the user is trying to accomplish.

In that case you can forget “engagement” as a metric, kids. You can’t measure something that doesn’t exist.

Three Prescriptions To Fight Inattentional Blindness.

If Inattentional Blindness is indeed the problem, then IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg’s call for an Interactive Creative Revolution can get us only part of the way to where we need to be.  We’ll be doing far superior dances for an audience that remains stone blind.

Here are my three prescriptions:

1) Get In The Attentional Pathway In The Right Way: Quit Dancing And Help Somebody. If someone is focused on getting the latest sports score and you’re trying to advertise to him, dancing to get his attention won’t work. He’s blind, remember?

Instead, find ways to help him do what he’s trying to do. A simple logo next to the score he’s focused on is better than a complicated ad he’s blind to. Or sponsor enhanced stats. Get creative about how to help.

2) Advertise Where There’s FAB.  Marketing is choking on a glut of acronyms. But I can’t resist the urge to invent one more: FAB.

It stands for “Farting-Around Behavior”, and it’s a silly name for an important concept. Namely, it’s much easier to attract someone’s attention when they’re not doing anything important.

This, by the way, may explain why TV refuses to stay buried no matter how many headstones we put up, or books we write.  Maybe the reason TV isn’t dead is that it’s a nearly 100% FAB medium.

While there’s lots of highly-directed behavior online (see Google’s market cap if you doubt this), there’s also a ton of Farting Around Behavior. This is more politely known by its old name: web surfing: clicking around looking around for fun.

One of the most brilliant ideas for attracting FAB is my friend Jaffer Ali’s company, VidSense.  He offers an irresistable tray of possible video snacks to web surfers, and when they click they get the free snack plus an ad. When VidSense users click, they’re volunteering their attention. That’s unbelievably rare today, and worth checking out.

3) Remember That People Are Rarely Blind To Their Friends.  There’s a real role for Social Media in marketing. But, it’s part of the opportunity, not the whole thing. If a Social Media “expert” tells you TV is dead and Social Media is your only hope, put your hand on your wallet and back slowly away. You’re talking to someone who has Inattentional Blindness about how marketing really works.

Three Things To Think About

  1. A whole lot of the people you’re trying to attract online are suffering from Inattentional Blindness. They can’t see you, no matter how frantically you dance.
  2. To succeed, you’ve got to help them do what they’re doing, or find them when they’re not doing anything.
  3. If you can find them when they’re not anything, great.  But to Randall Rothenberg’s point, you’d better dance a whole lot better than you do today.

What do you think of my Inattentional Blindness theory? Does it hold water? Or, is there something obvious that I’m being blind to?

As always, I welcome your comments.


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7 responses

22 06 2009
Matt Hames

I like FAB. I blame marketers for Banner blindness. I remember getting a job once to write a Direct Mail letter and the AE fella told me that i had to put the most important stuff in the PS because everyone read the PS of a letter.

I wondered to him if we were to blame, and if we could be a little cheeky about it. As in: PS. the rest of the letter is just the copywriter auditioning for his next job. This is all you need. Call us today.

He didn’t let me do it. But the point was, he knew no one read the letter, and still he wanted a letter. We know no one looks at banner ads, and yet, we throw our collective hands up and do banner ads.

We marketers are weird.

29 06 2009
John Clapps

Very interesting – and plausible. It’s all a matter of focus.

Thanks

John

7 07 2009
Tom Hespos

I like FAB. I will flagrantly steal the term and try to work it into an iMedia article at some point. Makes me want to put together a test that would directly compare FAB-rich media environments like Fark and SomethingAwful.com to other environments like CNN or Yahoo News. :-)

7 07 2009
tjcnyc

Tom, thanks. In all seriousness, I would love to try a test of FAB-rich environments against other environments. Also, I’d be thrilled if people started talking about FAB in boardrooms and stuffed-shirt execs had to ask what it is only to be told it’s “farting around behavior” :-)

7 07 2009
Doug Cleek

Good article.
“Help” is the operative word when trying to interrupt or intercept a user on a mission. Good stuff.

7 07 2009
Dave Hendricks

Where can I get one of those vacuum devices so I can grow hair on my dancing alien?

6 11 2010
adam

I like it and have not much to add other than its hard. What i take out is to break through inattentional blindness you need to either be in a non-intentional space (FAB – which is great), or provide something that ads to the intention. The later is really really hard. Although I do like the concept of friends being a trojan horse for brand messaging. Nice post.

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