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.


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.

Does Social Media Matter? Does It Scale?

22 08 2008

Peter Kim is my new hero, and somebody you should definitely read.

He’s written two consecutive important blog posts that I wish I had written:

There’s a lot of breathless hype out there about social media marketing right now.

What’s needed is a counterbalance: a few smart people asking simple, sober, pointed, jugular questions.

Peter Kim is one of those smart people. His blog rocks. I strongly suggest that you read what he has to say.

The Ultimate Social Media Diagram?

14 08 2008

UPDATE 8/16/2008: Some people have been asking for a bigger version of this illustration. I don’t have it in a vector format because I hacked it together out of JPEGs in Photoshop. But here’s the biggest, cleanest version I have. Feel free to use and share however you’d like, but please link people back here. Thanks!

Download BIG version of “social media mess”

Hmm. Could the chart below be the most insightful social media diagram ever?


Not just because, like all good illustrations, it steals liberally from the best thinking in the business.

Or because it has more circles and charts and connections than any I’ve ever seen.

Or even because it contains popular words, concepts and logos.

I like it is because I think it’s pretty accurate.

  • It’s an unholy, incomprehensible mess.
  • It’s anxiety-provoking
  • The more earnest you are about trying to understand it, the more your head will hurt.
  • It’s more fun to look at than a diagram about broadcast TV.
  • Despite all of the above, it still looks oddly important.
  • And no matter how hard you look, you can’t really see any money in there.

I’m not putting down anybody for trying to make sense of social media. On the contrary, it’s important work.

And, a lot of the component charts actually do go a long way to clarifying what social media actually means. To see a great collection of these, go visit Marc Meyer’s well-done blog here.

What I really AM saying is that when media fragments into this many teeny pieces, it’s confusing as hell. It’s The Humpty-Dumpty Problem.

Which pieces matter? Which can we ignore? How can we re-aggregate the important pieces into a marketplace that’s large enough to be meaningful and profitable for a mass advertiser?

And, on a very practical basis, how many individual conversations can we afford to support? How many can we hope to conduct without making each one so shallow that it’s hugely unsatisfying for everyone?

I don’t have the answers, yet.

If I did, I’d put up a simpler diagram.

P.S. I just came across an appropriate quote by Edgar Degas: “”What a delightful thing is the conversation of specialists! One understands absolutely nothing and it’s charming.”  Apparently even in 1870s Paris, there were social media consultants 🙂

5 Lessons From The Verizon Viral

23 07 2008

There’s a brilliant viral video going around where the Verizon “can you hear me now?” guy and his network sneak up on a guy making a phone call and follow him around, just like in the commercials.

What can we learn from why this works?

  1. TV Is A “Socialization Medium”. TV isn’t a Social Medium in the way we normally think of it. But it IS a fantastic “Socialization Medium”.This stunt couldn’t have worked unless it was able to draw on the crowd’s shared experience. Their reaction wasn’t “what the heck is that?” Their reaction was “OMG, I’ve seen this on TV!”. Verizon was able to socialize this concept through good commercials in people’s living rooms.
  2. Show Beats Tell Every Time. How do you sell something invisible, like a better wireless network? The rational thing to do is to explain it with words. The smart thing to do is communicate it with an outrageous visual. Verizon invested millions and dollars and years of effort into making the Verizon guy and his network a visual icon.Making their product difference visible in an entertaining way made their story stick in people’s heads. It’s easy to forget a tagline. It’s hard to forget a visual story.
  3. Unexpected Is Powerful. Most of the time, most of the human race teeters perilously on the brink of being bored to death. By the time we’re teenagers, we’ve seen it all, read it all, heard it all and done it all a thousand times. This goes double for advertising. We have to make our messages new again, or accept the consequences.
  4. Leave Room For Human Moments. The best part of this video, for me, is when the guy who has been surprised begins playing along by taking half steps and seeing what the network will do. Unscripted moments like that will always be better than anything you could possibly script in advance. Why? Because they are genuine, human, real: three things that advertising generally is not.
  5. Resist The Urge To Hard Sell. The best way to have ruined this would have been to start thinking selfishly. “Shouldn’t we say something about how big our network is?” “Maybe our guy should be carrying a giant Verizon sign.” “Can’t we tag the video with a 5 second pitch about our new widget?”

Does anybody know if this was an official Verizon effort? Who the production company or agency was? Where or how the idea started? I’m really curious. It’s rare to see something done so well.

P.S. Disclosure: I’m a Verizon Wireless customer in NYC. I actually think they’re really good, which makes me like this video all the more.

It’s Not You, It’s Me (Social Media Blues)

17 06 2008

“Look, there’s no easy way to say this. You’re a great brand, and I like having you around. I’m just not ready for an intense relationship right now with a brand of butter. It’s not you, it’s me.”

“I can’t Twitter with you all day. I don’t need a butter recipe widget. I don’t want to play a butter Flash game, even if it gets me points for coupons. Why do I need to friend you on MySpace and Facebook? Can’t I just butter my toast and move on? Sure, we have a relationship. But I don’t want to be engaged every second of every day.”

Social media has a place for all brands. But it’s dangerous narcissism to expect more engagement than consumers want to give.

Tossing theory aside, the reality is some brands are Angelina Jolie and some are Mike Tyson.

As consumers, we may be thrilled to luxuriate in Angelina’s attention, but probably wouldn’t want to spend more time with Mike than we really need to.

What about your brand? Is it an Angelina Jolie, or a Mike Tyson? What sort of social media strategy you ought to have depends heavily on who you are, and what kind of relationship your consumers want.