Taking advantage when you’re distracted

One word for that, Magic Arts

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James Randi: Knows about the value of distraction

The best love stories start with indifference. You meet in the canteen and over the months, without trying too hard, a colleague becomes your friend, and then you fall for them.

It’s When Harry Met Sally, or Emma, or Scrotal Recall.

Whereas on a blind date or in a pick-up bar being chatted up, you’re on your guard.  That’s fine if you’re looking to buy, or sell (… I don’t really mean sell), but …it’s hard to open up your feelings in these circumstances.

The recent documentary on BBC4 about James Randi illustrated the point.

This former magician and escapologist has spent 30 years successfully exposing charismatic faith-healers and mental spoon-benders. But they’re as popular as ever and despite Randi’s devotion to his task – he is now 86 but looks 120 – the public seems to prefer the magic of belief to the grimness of truth.

One unexpected feature of the programme: chippily self-confident on TV, Randi’s vulnerabilities were revealed when his partner was threatened with deportation. He said of Randi, ‘People don’t know how much he cares when he sees someone in distress.. he will do what is necessary to save somebody’.

The programme needed an emotional core to work, and wove it in subtly.  Randi’s tool may be rationality but the most successful magicians rely on distraction. If an audience’s emotions are engaged – in a faith healing session or darkened room with a psychic – they are doubly vulnerable to the power of suggestion.

This also explains how TV works.  But some people don’t seem to understand it.

Missing the point

Perhaps you read this recently: How Mobile Video Can Drive the Future of Brand Marketing

Google and Ipsos announced that:

..the small screen has the potential to drive big impact…

Video watching on TV was the sole activity just 28% of the time…  The rest of the time, participants were involved with another activity—such as eating, using a computer, chatting to a friend or cooking—as they were watching TV. Alternatively, video watching was the sole activity for 53% of mobile video sessions.

People watching digital video outside the home are also 1.8x more likely than average to be meaningfully engaged because they are likely to be watching video for active purposes, such as looking for information or exploring a passion.

So if someone is focused on a task, they’ll absorb more.

Well, it’s a point of view, but there are a several problems.

1. Media consumption and distraction is not easy to measure properly (though some people have succeeded), but these are big topics: asking people about attention levels doesn’t cut it;

2. So, looking for information or exploring a passion is an ‘active purpose’. But we watch TV to indulge ourself, connect with others or escape…  are these less active or purposeful than learning make-up tips or watching gameplay clips?

3. With ‘meaningfully engaged’ the authors equate attention level with advertising effectiveness.  But we’ve known for years, notably from Robert Heath’s work, that we process video and sound such that when we are switched off (‘eating’..) our brain can be MORE receptive.  There’s more here. Or you can buy Heath’s book here.

Being open-minded

Les Binet and Peter Field’s The Long and the Short Of It analysis for the IPA of effective advertising campaigns looked into the topic:

In contrast to widely held beliefs, [Heath] argues that there is a benefit to low attention levels amongst viewers of a commercial: “the emotive content itself, all of which will be processed (because emotive processing happens automatically and instantaneously and without any attention being paid), will likewise enter our consciousness without any challenge (i.e. counter-argument).

In effect, the role of creativity, far from making us more alert and more attentive, renders us less attentive and more vulnerable.” Thus he argues that TV’s ability to facilitate low attention processing (because viewers are in a relaxed passive mode) results in more effective seeding of emotive associations with brands than media such as print or websites (where viewers are required to focus and pay attention).

As Robert Heath says, more brieflyThis fixation with getting high attention is a bit of a waste of time.

Byron Sharp recently pointed out that:

In a lot of the cases we reach someone, but we don’t reach their brain. People are goal directed when they are on Facebook.  They are looking at the stuff their friends are putting up.  They’re not looking at advertising, so there is a lot of screening out. 

How much that lowers the quality of the exposure is a very important question.

Perhaps adverts watched on mobile phones really are more effective.  But you can’t tell from the Google/Ipsos study. (Worse, their Range Rover case study implies that car buyers come to Google at the start of the buying process, and ignores the 20 years Range Rover has invested in television and elsewhere to build mental availability with purchasers).

The whole area is crying out for more investment.  If a company with the resources of Google won’t develop serious research into how types of attention can affect the effectiveness of campaigns, then we are entitled to reject their study the way we’d reject Uri Geller’s claims of psychic influence on spoons.

Being open, ourselves

And we shouldn’t only point the finger at Google.  TV researchers deploy dial-testing where respondents report their second by second satisfaction levels during a drama or comedy.  Won’t the self-conscious task kill off the natural response? If no-one watches programmes that way, why research viewing like this?

Finally, if you’ve been contemplating this and have a research colleague you’ve always got on with but never thought of that way but now you mention it, there is something about them and they’re single… and.. why not see if they’re free for lunch.