As much as we want to believe in our superhero powers of efficiency and our ability to do two things at once, the truth is multi-tasking is a myth. It’s been proven in study after study. Test after test. The idea that we can do two things at once is just an illusion created by our brains quickly shifting our attention between two separate actions. The same goes for our mental focus. As hard as we might try, mentally we can only focus on one thing at a time.
When I was in school, I always listened to music while I was studying and, curiously, my musical tastes differed greatly depending on what I was studying. If I was reading or writing, I listened to Classical or Jazz exclusively. But when it came to Math, my music of choice was always Rock. U2. The Stones. R.E.M. The Who. It didn’t matter which band I listened to, they were all great complements to Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus.
At the time, I had no idea why Mahler went better with Milton and Quadrophenia was the preferred choice for quadratic equations, but now I understand why my brain made the musical choices it did. When I was reading or writing the lyrics in the Rock songs competed with the words on the page. My brain couldn’t focus on both of those things at once and every time it tried a cacophonous ping pong match broke out in my head—my brain fluttering back and forth trying to make sense of competing information. Classical and Jazz were instrumental. No lyrics. No confusion.
As advertising agencies, marketing companies, and design firms, we have to understand our customers fight the same battles with focus as they try to absorb our branding efforts. We fire thousands of marketing messages at them every day and technology is making it worse, not better.
Last March, a Statista poll showed a whopping 81% of American internet users said they now use a second device while watching television. Which means even if consumers aren’t muting our commercials, or skipping them altogether on their DVRs, eight out of 10 are distracted by the information hitting them from the second or third screens sitting in their laps.
That may sound bleak. But it’s actually a rich opportunity. The key to breaking through the noise is a concept social psychologist Robert Cialdini calls “focused attention.” In his new bestseller PRE-Suasion, Cialdini notes that cognitive functioning actually entails a transaction. That’s why in English we are said to “pay” attention.
When we “pay” attention to something, the cost is lost attention to something else. In other words, if you’re watching a Mercedes commercial, that’s 30 seconds you’re not thinking about BMW, Lexus, or Audi. If our brains can only focus on one thing at a time, when we draw a consumer’s focused attention TOWARD our brand, we’re simultaneously drawing them AWAY from alternatives they may be more likely to choose.
One option is to try to focus attention through sheer media volume. That’s how advertising worked until the ‘60s and the advent of creative selling. But today, the greatest marketing brands are the ones that combine smart media planning with compelling creativity. Many have sniped that brands with production and media budgets like GEICO, FedEx, and Nike could get the same results. That may or may not be true, but what’s undeniable is that those brands have an extraordinary ability to focus the attention of the viewer.
Whether it’s a Sloth playing Pictionary, a Caveman trying to send the first overnight package, or the world’s greatest athletes showing off, every second those brands focus someone’s attention on their pitch is time that same consumer isn’t focusing on someone else’s. It doesn’t take a billion dollars. It takes a great idea. That is what draws attention. That is what captivates focus, even for a few seconds. And in the world we live in—with limited time, limited resources, and limited attention spans—those seconds are the most precious commodity we have.