Thomas Z. Ramsøy

The Myth of More: When Attention Isn’t Enough

| | |

In the bustling heart of New York City, a billboard looms large. It’s an advertisement for a new brand of sneakers, and it’s designed to grab your attention. Bright colors, bold text, and a celebrity endorsement — it’s got all the makings of a successful ad.

But as the days go by, the people walking beneath it seem less and less interested. They glance up, maybe even stop for a moment, but then they move on, the advertisement forgotten.

This scene, as alluded to in a 2019 New York Times article, paints a vivid picture of an industry in flux. The advertising world has long operated on the principle that attention is the golden ticket.

If you can capture a consumer’s gaze, you’ve won half the battle…well, actually only a quarter of the battle. As the billboard scenario suggests, attention isn’t the be-all and end-all. In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that our fixation on attention might be misplaced.

Attention is only step 1 of 4…

Enter the 4 Power Model of effective advertising, a groundbreaking framework developed by yours truly in collaboration with Prof. Baba Shiv at Stanford University. Initially based on a large-scale longitudinal study with and for Bonnier Media (PDF), we have since done extensive research involving thousands of ads and over 150,000 participants.

Attention is but one of multiple ad responses that are critical for ad success.

Today, this model posits that attention, while crucial, is just one piece of the puzzle. For an advertisement to truly resonate, it needs to harness four distinct powers: attention, emotion/engagement, cognition/comprehension, and memory.

In other words, we’re moving way beyond attention to understand how ads fail and succeed.

The data is compelling. In our research, we found that ads that scored high on all four powers outperformed their counterparts by a significant margin. But here’s the kicker: ads that focused solely on attention, neglecting the other three powers, often fell flat.

Consumers have an acquired “commercial immune response”

It’s a phenomenon I like to call the “advertising immune system.” Just as our bodies develop resistance to diseases after repeated exposure, consumers are becoming increasingly immune to attention-grabbing tactics.

As consumers we readily develop an “advertising immune response” where we actively seek to avoid ads as soon as we detect that they are in fact ads.

The flashy billboards, the loud commercials, the pop-up ads — they’ve seen it all before. And in this age of the attention economy, where every brand is vying for a slice of the consumer’s time, this immunity is only growing stronger.

But there’s hope. By understanding and leveraging the 4 Power Model, advertisers can craft messages that not only capture attention but also evoke emotion, foster comprehension, and leave a lasting memory. It’s a holistic approach, one that recognizes the multifaceted nature of human cognition and behavior.

An Ad Symphony Where Attention is but One Instrument

Now let’s try making this concrete: imagine an advertisement for a luxury car. The visuals are stunning: sleek design, gleaming metal, and scenic landscapes. This captures your attention. But then, the ad takes a turn. It shows a family — parents, kids, a dog — laughing and bonding inside the car. The background score is a soft, nostalgic tune. This evokes emotion and engagement. The voiceover speaks not just of horsepower or mileage, but of safety features, of legacy, of the craftsmanship that goes into every model. This aids cognition and comprehension. Finally, as the ad concludes, there’s a memorable tagline, something that sticks, ensuring that days later, you remember not just the car, but the brand and its promise. That’s the power of memory.

An example of a fictitious ad following the description in the main text

Now, let’s dissect this. If the ad had focused solely on the car’s aesthetics, it might’ve grabbed attention but would’ve been just another car commercial. The emotional angle gives it depth, making it relatable. The detailed information on features ensures the viewer understands the product’s unique selling points. And the memorable tagline ensures brand recall.

Our research with the 4 Power Model underscores this. Ads that scored high on attention but low on emotion often had a fleeting impact. They were like fireworks — bright, attention-grabbing, but short-lived.

On the other hand, ads that evoked strong emotions but lacked clarity in messaging left viewers feeling stirred but confused. It’s only when an ad effectively combined all four powers that it truly resonated, leading to higher brand recall, positive sentiment, and, crucially, a higher likelihood of purchase intent.

In one of our studies involving a beverage commercial, we found that participants who viewed an ad that balanced all four powers not only remembered the brand better but were also more likely to choose that beverage over competitors in a blind taste test. The ad didn’t just sell a product; it created an experience, a connection.

How many advertising instruments are you playing on?

So, the next time you’re crafting an ad campaign or evaluating the effectiveness of a marketing strategy, ask yourself: Are you playing a one-note tune, or are you orchestrating a symphony of engagement?

Because in the world of advertising, it’s not always about “more is more.” Sometimes, it’s about finding the sweet spot, the perfect balance that resonates with the consumer on multiple levels.

As we stand at the crossroads of the attention economy, it’s worth pondering: Is attention the endgame, or is it merely the beginning?