The title here is a paraphrase of a heading in Jon Steel’s excellent Perfect Pitch book which I am half way through at the moment. There is some truth in it for all of us. Jon’s theory is that our modern obsession with speed and ‘always on’ connectivity reduces our ability to concentrate on the task in hand. Even if our thoughts are not already interrupted, our minds are constantly ready to be, resulting in a loss of focus. A couple of studies from Hewlett Packard and from the University of London are quoted which support the idea that constant connectivity via texting, e-mail etc can have a temporarily negative effect on IQ and cognitive processing.
Steel also talks about a paper in the Harvard Business Review (called Overloaded Circuits:Why Smart People Underperform – sub required) by Edward Halliwell which defines a syndrome he calls ‘Attention Deficit Trait’ . This is not a neurological condition, but rather a response to the ‘hyperkinetic environment’ in which we live and is supported, he says, by two delusions:
1. That it is a sign of weakness if we don’t manage to create enough time to cope with what is expected of us
2. That if we are not constantly connected the world will fall apart.
I can identify with a lot of this. I feel it myself and I see it in a lot of people around me. It really annoys me when people start tapping on their Blackberry in the middle of meetings, or stop their conversation with you to read a text. (I’m a bit of a Victor Meldrew when it comes down to it).
Linda Stone‘s theory about Continuous Partial Attention posits the idea that a desire to be busy, connected, maximising on all opportunities, optimising every moment leads people to live their lives in a constant state of partial attention. This is a little more subtle than mere multitasking, where people are making a conscious choice to do more than one thing at a time as a way of saving valuable minutes. But there can be no doubt that we are indeed attempting to fit ever more into our day. The well known study from Yahoo and OMD in the US showed that on average, respondents were packing 43 hours worth of activity into a 24-hour period. Our powers of multi-tasking have multiplied, as has our ability for consuming lots of different media concurrently. A study by Ball State University (PDF) in the US last year looked at the potential impacts of what they called ‘Concurrent Media Exposure’ – the idea that simultaneuous consumption of different media has a significant impact on not only the way that each media are consumed, but also on the level of engagement that people have with those different media. People adopt different models of consumption at different times, ranging from full engagement in multiple media (an office worker on the phone to the helpdesk whilst looking at an error message on screen), to a clear foreground/background relationship (playing a computer game whilst listening to the radio), to ‘restless attention shifting among multiple candidates for attention’ (reading a magazine, with the radio on as background, whilst occasionally glancing at the TV).
The implications for advertising and for brands are significant. Jon Steel suggests that this constant connectivity and competition for our attention ‘has a profound effect upon our ability to collect information and to approach the process of interpretation, synthesis, and dramatization in an open, healthy state of mind.’ The Ball State study concluded that some media are more likely than others to be consumed without competition from non-media life activities and other media.
If we concur with Richard’s view articulated in his excellent post A Kick in the Teeth for LIP , then advertising has to do more than just influence from the background. Good advertising, he says, ‘requires active engagement from people towards the brand or communication, not just their passive attention.’ Richard describes work done by Millward Brown using cognitive neuroscience to develop our understanding of the ‘mental workspace’, the place in the brain where we make conscious decisions, build associations, control our voluntary actions. Turns out we can only use this space to think about 3-4 things at once. So the impact of multi-tasking, constant connectivity, continuous partial attention – whatever you want to call it – are really quite profound. Our ability to communicate a simple message may not be all that it seems. Strangely, most media planning takes scant account of concurrent media exposure. An OTS or OTH is assumed to be just that, an opportunity taken. But is it?