Opinion Leader
1
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May I have your attention please?
Opinion LeaderBrain Game
Opinion Leader
2
Share this
May I have your attention please?
It sounds like a simple question – but
recent advances in ne...
Opinion Leader
3
Share this
Human beings are natural-born attention seekers.
We feel affirmed when we get noticed, when
we...
Opinion Leader
4
Share this
What is attention?
Advances in neuroscience are revealing that our
understanding of attention ...
Opinion Leader
5
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External (exogenous)
Senses (visual, hearing, etc.)
Objects and their features
Spatial locatio...
Opinion Leader
6
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A walk through Times Square
When a person walks through New York City’s Times
Square, each of ...
Opinion Leader
7
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The secrets of competitive stimuli
Competing for attention in such a complex mental
environmen...
Opinion Leader
8
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control, more novel features are likely to make it into
our consciousness; when our endogenous...
Opinion Leader
9
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Beyond notice: the challenge of prolonged
attention
Applying these characteristics to advertis...
Opinion Leader
10
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May I have your attention please?
When a brand’s messaging has consistent characteristics
tha...
Opinion Leader
11
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Going ape: three primate stories of
attention - Our growing understanding
of attention owes a...
Opinion Leader
12
Share this
Simons and Chabri’s Invisible
gorilla
In 1999, the researchers Simons and Chabri asked
a volu...
Opinion Leader
13
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Defining novelty through
dopamine
Real apes took centre-stage in another experiment
demonstra...
Opinion Leader
14
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The right kind of attention?
In 2007, Cadbury’s released a film of a drumming
gorilla, simply...
Opinion Leader
15
Share this
About the authors
You may
be interested in...
Kyle Findlay is a Senior R&D Executive at the T...
Opinion Leader
16
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About Opinion Leaders
Opinion Leaders is part of a regular series of articles from TNS consul...
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May I have your attention

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May I have your attention please? What is attention and how does it actually work?

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May I have your attention

  1. 1. Opinion Leader 1 Share this May I have your attention please? Opinion LeaderBrain Game
  2. 2. Opinion Leader 2 Share this May I have your attention please? It sounds like a simple question – but recent advances in neuroscience are proving how complex a challenge being noticed can be.
  3. 3. Opinion Leader 3 Share this Human beings are natural-born attention seekers. We feel affirmed when we get noticed, when we stand out from the crowd, or when we have a loved one’s undivided attention. For those of us working in marketing or advertising this is a professional calling; marketers and agencies get paid according to their ability to capture people’s attention for brands. All of us know what it feels like to capture somebody’s attention successfully but we know very little about the systems within that person’s brain that enable this to happen. Until relatively recently, we have had a limited understanding of what attention actually is – and how it works. May I have your attention please?
  4. 4. Opinion Leader 4 Share this What is attention? Advances in neuroscience are revealing that our understanding of attention has been gravely oversimplified for a long time. Attention is not a self-contained act. Instead it is a series of rapid, interacting mental processes that involve the brain prioritising on the basis of what our senses tell us is happening, and what our memories tell us that we care about; and for much of the time, it is not under our conscious control at all. The task of capturing an individual’s attention is complicated, because that person’s attention is a constantly shifting target. The human brain processes information at breath-taking speed and in immense volumes – but although it is hugely impressive in its processing capacity, it is not limitless. Attention exists because the brain needs a means of focusing its finite resources and ensuring that we capture, process and encode the information that is most important to our survival and success. This involves constantly selecting the things that we will pay closer attention to at the expense of others. And this selection process takes place extremely quickly. May I have your attention please? In any given second, our brain can process up to 40 different sights, sounds, smells and other external stimuli. It has the capability of processing quite a few of these at what we might call a cursory level, with very low involvement of brain resources that never gets much beyond ‘semantic’ recognition of what things are. The vast majority of stimuli never make it any further than this; our brain stops processing them before we notice them at any conscious level. Only about four at a time engage the higher-level involvement of our short-term memory, at which point we become properly aware of their presence.
  5. 5. Opinion Leader 5 Share this External (exogenous) Senses (visual, hearing, etc.) Objects and their features Spatial locations Temporal locations (points in time) Based on cues (movement, contrast, abrupt changes, emotions) Attention Internal (endogenous) Memories (short and long-term) Decision-making between response options Attending to thoughts Task rules Making it into memory The question of how the brain decides which external stimuli to process at a higher level, and which to ignore, is therefore a crucial one for marketers. Which of the advertising messages that a consumer is exposed to are actually adding to our conscious memories and associations for a brand? Which are really being noticed? And how can a brand adjust its approach to make sure that its messages fall into this category? Answering these questions requires an understanding not just of what our senses capture of the world around us, but of how our brain sets about prioritising them. Human beings have two forms of attention: external and internal. Our external or exogenous attention responds to the stimuli around us and allocates our mental resources to them depending on how urgent or important they inherently appear; our internal or endogenous attention responds to our own promptings about what’s important, such as a task that we are consciously focused on. Our working memory, the ‘scratchpad’ part of our consciousness that puts different pieces of information together to help us work things out and accomplish tasks, balances the two forms of attention. It judges what is most important at the time – and directs our external attention that way. Our attention forms a feedback loop – but a fluid one. May I have your attention please? Figure 1: A simple outline of how stimuli create or add to our existing beliefs, memories and associations Figure 2: Human beings have two broad types of attention: external and internal Once something has our attention, we focus more of our attention on the things related to it. Any alternative stimuli must make a stronger case for cutting through this process and directing attention elsewhere instead.
  6. 6. Opinion Leader 6 Share this A walk through Times Square When a person walks through New York City’s Times Square, each of the many ads on billboards has the opportunity to grab their attention by persuading their brain that they are important enough to be processed by their short-term memory. The person is in what could be termed an ambient state; their exogenous attention is in control and this directs them towards the external sights and sounds that appear most worthy of the brain’s higher-level involvement. The complicating thing for marketers and researchers is that the mental playing field in which these ads compete for attention is never completely level. Each individual carries priorities and motivations encoded within various parts of their brain that suggest their own agenda to their short-term memory. These could take the form of conscious tasks, such as looking for a friend they have agreed to meet in the Square; recently activated affective memories such as a long-forgotten song that recalls their 10th birthday; or deep-rooted convictions or loyalties such as support for the New York Knicks basketball team. Two of these examples would predispose an individual towards noticing certain ads before others: the person thinking about their 10th birthday may be more likely to notice an ad featuring a bicycle, which echoes an affective memory associated with that occasion; the attention of the Knicks fan may move fastest to a Nike ad featuring an image of the basketball player Carmelo Anthony in action, because this supports the person’s view that Anthony is the Knicks’ best player (a focusing effect known as confirmation bias). The exception is the person scanning faces looking for their friend. They notice few ads because their brain has focused their May I have your attention please? limited resources towards a specific task at the expense of other stimuli such as ads. In this final case, control has switched from exogenous attention, in which the brain is directed by the urgings of the environment, to endogenous attention, in which it is directed by a conscious priority, and filters external stimuli according to that agenda. Nike ads, bicycle-containing ads and all other ads are dramatically de-prioritised as a result. Even though all three of these people were theoretically exposed to all the ads in the Square and had the same opportunity to view them, their likelihood of noticing each of them was really very different. Figure 3: Attention can be directed in two ways: top-down (endogenous) or bottom-up (exogenous)
  7. 7. Opinion Leader 7 Share this The secrets of competitive stimuli Competing for attention in such a complex mental environment of existing biases and agendas can seem daunting; but it shouldn’t. Human attention would be of little evolutionary use if it were not capable of rapidly readjusting when the occasion demands it. The key to getting your messages noticed, and to judging when an ad is likely to be successful, lies in understanding what characteristics of external stimuli can cause attention to be refocused in this way. External attention takes several forms. The form most relevant to marketers – and to our Times Square visitors – is spatial attention, our ability to focus on a specific region of space within an environment, shifting the focus of our senses from left to right, from the foreground to the background, from basketball star to bicycle, or from face to face. Were our Times Square visitors sat in their hotel rooms or apartments watching TV rather than walking past billboards, we would be more interested in their temporal attention. This refers to our ability to notice things appearing in the May I have your attention please? same place at different points in time, such as the ads appearing one after another on the same TV screen. In both cases, a stimulus has a greater likelihood of engaging our conscious attention if it surprises us, if it generates an emotional reaction, or if it aligns with our existing motivations, priorities and sense of self.
  8. 8. Opinion Leader 8 Share this control, more novel features are likely to make it into our consciousness; when our endogenous attention is focusing us on a specific task, something that appears unexpected enough can still cut through the clutter and direct our attention towards it. The priority given to novelty is the reason why humour is such an effective vehicle for capturing attention, since the subversion of the expected is typically what makes us laugh. Emotion, brought about by the release of specific chemical signals within the brain, is another mobilising force ringing the alarm bell for external stimuli; it signals May I have your attention please? Our awareness mechanism reacts very quickly to movement, the appearance of something new or to objects that contrast with their surroundings, but it also jumps quickly into gear when confronted by something novel that contradicts our brains’ expectations. If something stands out from the way that we expect the world around us to be, then our brain makes sure we know about it. In order to support this, our spatial attention is hard-wired to process particular features of an object such as movement, colour and the direction that it is facing, faster than others. When our exogenous, external-facing attention is in to our brain that something requires urgent attention – and so stimuli that are associated with powerful emotions such as fear, loss or the promise of reward, are swiftly promoted up the queue for short-term memory processing and arrival in our consciousness. Emotional stimuli signal to our brain that our attention needs diverting outwards – and so they too are able to over- ride endogenous priorities when necessary. In contrast, a stimulus can also increase its chances of being noticed if it aligns with the things we are focused on at the time, or on things we care about that are embodied in long-term memory structures such as affective memories. Our Times Square visitor whose attention is drawn to the ad with the bicycle is one example; as is a TV viewer who notices an ad for private medical insurance during an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. In this case, the stimulus is working with our endogenous attention rather than seeking to interrupt it. As a strategy for marketing, this can be highly effective; however it depends upon a marketer’s ability to either build relevant associations and memories ahead of time, or anticipate what individuals will be focusing on at a specific point and tailor their executions to resonate with or cut-through in that situation.
  9. 9. Opinion Leader 9 Share this Beyond notice: the challenge of prolonged attention Applying these characteristics to advertising and other marketing messages can win a brand the conscious attention of the individuals within its audience. However, the value of that attention depends on the strength of the initial impression that a brand is able to make, its ability to hold that individual’s attention, and what that attention might influence him or her to do next. Being noticed is an essential starting point – but it is only a starting point. The most successful brands are able to command attention repeatedly, in different contexts and at different levels, all the while keeping a sense of ‘fresh consistency’ that enables them to build long-term brand memories over time. The way in which an external stimulus is experienced and the amount of resources that are involved in processing it, influences the amount of attention that is paid to it once it has been noticed – and the features of it that register within the brain. As we have discussed in previous papers, emotional experiences that resonate with personal goals are particularly effective when it comes to creating strong, long-term affective memories that can impact future behaviour. However, the way in which an individual’s attention has to work in order to process stimuli can also have an impact on how long those stimuli keep hold of their attention – and on their capacity to create longer-term impact. The complexity conundrum – and its solutions More complex objects or messages demand more from our brain in order to process them – and making it into short-term memory is therefore more of a challenge for them. On the other hand though, a message that our short-term memory devotes more resources to processing is more likely to create stronger, long-term memories and be recalled in the future. This leaves marketers with a dilemma: to be most effective they need to challenge our brain’s processing capabilities whilst convincing our attention that the challenge is worth it. May I have your attention please? Challenging our brain is the principle behind the Zeigarnik effect, which describes our tendency to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. This results from our inherent striving to find meaning, to interpret and categorise our experiences for future reference. When our attention is drawn to something that does not immediately resolve itself to our satisfaction, that something remains in our memory for longer; it’s why cliffhangers are such an effective strategy for TV scriptwriters; and it’s why ads that are difficult to make sense of immediately are often so effective. Our brain wants to process things as quickly as possible; demanding its attention but then denying it the opportunity to move on forces it to spend more time with the message on which we want it to focus. When it comes to demanding attention for more complex ideas, packaging them in a form that’s easier to process can help to ensure that they engage our awareness; this is where we can make use of our attention’s ability to switch between specific features and more general objects or concepts, chunking relevant stimuli together into something instantly recognisable: a clown rather than a man with a red nose, oversized shoes and a bright coloured tie.
  10. 10. Opinion Leader 10 Share this May I have your attention please? When a brand’s messaging has consistent characteristics that it is easy for our attention to associate together, it makes that messaging more inviting to encode in all its detail. Beyond this, there are other strategies at our disposal to make sure deeper messages that can engage our attention over the longer term also have the capacity to engage our awareness amid the split-second decisions that our brains make about what’s important. This is where aligning messages with our understanding of the motivations and ambitions of individuals is a particularly powerful approach, as is incorporating elements that can generate an emotional response within that individual’s brain. Priming our attention through repetition can also play a key role in easing the process by which objects and concepts enter our consciousness – and this is where brand logos or other visual stimuli that are only processed at the very lowest level can still make a contribution in paving the way for messages to cut through in the future. Media schedules have a significant role to play in ensuring that advertising reaches consumers on a schedule that fits the natural rhythms of temporal attention (giving our brains time to absorb information and notice something new). And effective media planning can position messages in contexts where they are most likely to be noticed, either through their contrast to the environment around them or their resonance with the agenda that environment suggests to the brain. In these ways, the rapid growth in our understanding of the mechanics of attention does far more than demonstrate the complex nature of the task for marketers; by understanding the various pulls on our awareness, it equips marketers far better to ask for the audience’s attention – and to get the response that they need. By prioritising and measuring communications’ ability to deliver novelty, to resonate emotionally and to reflect an individual consumer’s priorities and sense of self, brands have a powerful playbook for capturing and keeping attention in a way that counts.
  11. 11. Opinion Leader 11 Share this Going ape: three primate stories of attention - Our growing understanding of attention owes a surprising amount to three ‘experiments’ involving great apes.
  12. 12. Opinion Leader 12 Share this Simons and Chabri’s Invisible gorilla In 1999, the researchers Simons and Chabri asked a volunteer in a gorilla suit to walk through a circle of people passing a ball between them, stopping in the middle of the circle to beat their chest (who said neuroscience was no fun?). This formed the basis of a famous experiment demonstrating ‘inattentive blindness’. When people were asked to watch a film of these goings-on and count how many times the people in the circle passed the ball between them, most didn’t notice the gorilla at all. Their endogenous, top-down attention was in control, devoting short-term memory to encoding information about ball-passes and not information about wandering gorillas.
  13. 13. Opinion Leader 13 Share this Defining novelty through dopamine Real apes took centre-stage in another experiment demonstrating the power of novelty in diverting human attention and producing a chemical record of what takes place in the brain when this happens. The apes were given food under different circumstances: when they didn’t expect it and when they did. The levels of dopamine in their brains were recorded, showing major spikes in the chemical when the surprise occurred and priming the apes to expect the surprise to occur again in the future. Dopamine is one of the ‘chemical currencies’ that our brain uses to register surprise, re-tuning our temporal and spatial attention towards it.
  14. 14. Opinion Leader 14 Share this The right kind of attention? In 2007, Cadbury’s released a film of a drumming gorilla, simply called ‘Gorilla’, that became one of the most famous UK commercials of all time – and has since triggered significant debate about what makes an attention-grabbing ad, and whether attention alone is enough to make an ad effective. In many respects, ‘Gorilla’ could have been written to a neuroscientific brief for attracting attention. It was surprisingly different, not just to previous Cadbury ads but to any ad appearing in a commercial break before. It stood out through novelty and contrast, it evoked emotion through its use of the Phil Collins track ‘In the Air Tonight’ – and its peculiar, unexplained nature triggered prolonged attention through the Zeigarnik effect. The ad was considered a great success at the time, it garnered huge press attention, set the standard for viral marketing and was credited with helping to increase sales year- on-year. However, several have since argued that since the ad evoked none of Cadbury’s traditional brand values, it failed to focus long-term beneficial attention on the brand itself. Others have argued that the sales uplift may have been down to a cold summer rather than any advertising impact. ‘Gorilla’ was novel and fresh – but was it consistent enough to deliver the right kind of attention?
  15. 15. Opinion Leader 15 Share this About the authors You may be interested in... Kyle Findlay is a Senior R&D Executive at the TNS Global Brand Equity Centre (GBEC) in Cape Town, South Africa. The GBEC develops and supports brand and communications thinking and solutions within TNS. Kyle has been intimately involved in the development of solutions such as the ConversionModel and models of consumer influence. Kyle’s work feeds his passion for uncovering what makes people tick and sharing it with others. He has a strong desire to bring the hard sciences to bear on the question of why people do what they do. This passion has encouraged him to delve into specific scientific areas such as neuroscience, network theory and big data to produce international award-winning papers in some of these areas. Alida Jansen is a member of TNS’s Global Brand & Communications practice, injecting strategic brand expertise across the TNS network, driving the development of the brand equity business by supporting new business Making memories > The secret life of the brain > opportunities, and helping to secure existing tracking/equity programs. Before working across the Global Brand & Communications practice, she worked at TNS’s Global Brand Equity Centre based in Cape Town, collaborating closely with TNS teams around the world to ensure that clients receive clear and precise growth direction from their Brand & Communications work. She has written and presented various papers at South African Market Research Association conferences, on topics such as the accuracy of self-reported behaviour, cultural response bias in research, sponsorship effectiveness, incentivizing employees through brand KPIs, and brand architecture. Editorial support – Matthew Cowan
  16. 16. Opinion Leader 16 Share this About Opinion Leaders Opinion Leaders is part of a regular series of articles from TNS consultants, based on their expertise gathered through working on client assignments in over 80 markets globally, with additional insights gained through TNS proprietary studies such as Digital Life, Mobile Life and the Commitment Economy. About TNS TNS advises clients on specific growth strategies around new market entry, innovation, brand switching and stakeholder management, based on long-established expertise and market-leading solutions. With a presence in over 80 countries, TNS has more conversations with the world’s consumers than anyone else and understands individual human behaviours and attitudes across every cultural, economic and political region of the world. TNS is part of Kantar, one of the world’s largest insight, information and consultancy groups. Please visit www.tnsglobal.com for more information. Get in touch If you would like to talk to us about anything you have read in this report, please get in touch via enquiries@tnsglobal.com or via Twitter @tns_global

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