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Signals, Noises, and Pain

by Chris O'Leary  |  
February 12, 2001

In my prior column, The Trouble with Advertising, I talked about what advertising can and cannot do. In particular, I made the point that advertising cannot persuade people.

The problem is that there are still a lot of companies out there desperately trying to use advertising to persuade people. People are being exposed to more messages than ever before. As a result, it's even harder to get your message across.

So how do you cut through the Noise?

Well, it is possible, but to understand how to do it you first have to understand how people process information.

Every human being possesses an Attentional System. This system serves two functions. First, it allows us to concentrate on what we are doing. Second, it alerts us to what is going on in the surrounding environment so that nothing bad happens to us.

It doesn't do much good to be able to focus on tying that spear point to your spear if you don't notice the lion that is sneaking up behind you. People who have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are very good at the second function and very bad at the first.

Our Attentional Systems have both Conscious and Unconscious components. This means that we can pay attention to and look for things both deliberately and without our realizing it.

Our Attentional Systems are also powerful but limited. We can pay attention to several things at once but not to too many things. The limits of the Conscious Attentional System appears to be around 2 or 3 things simultaneously on average. It is not clear what the upper limit of the Unconscious Attentional System is, but it appears to be greater than 10 things simultaneously. Women on average also seem have better Conscious Attentional Systems than men.

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Chris O'Leary ( is an eBusiness strategist for Cambridge Technology Partners (

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