People won't develop an image of our brand or company—never mind consider buying our product or service (even once)—unless we can first attract their attention.

Consumers are exposed to several thousand ads and many Web sites each day. But with this increasing exposure comes greater likelihood that they won't pay much attention to any of them.

Consider a recent statistic that says that only 1% of people can recall 12 ads associated with a company. That abysmal statistic is particularly shocking in light of the billions of dollars spent each year on advertising.

So what can you do about it?


Let's first go over some basic principles about attention, and then we can explore what you must do to get attention from consumers you are trying to reach.

First, attention is selective. Selectivity is extremely important because the number of stimuli to which we are exposed at any given time is potentially overwhelming. (Of course, the fact that attention is selective means that consumers can also become distracted—focusing on something new that grabs attention.)

Second, attention is capable of being divided. Consumers can, to a certain extent, pay attention to two things at once—like drive a car and talk with a passenger; watch TV and talk on the phone; search the Web and listen to the radio.

Interestingly, we can only divide our attention among things that are really familiar and easy to process. Consider the following as an example: If you are in a familiar store, you can easily chat with a companion about an unrelated topic. But in an unfamiliar store, you need to stop talking and take in the environment. If you are on a Web site that has lots of stuff going on, you can either try to focus on all that stuff but not think about them much, or decide to focus on one thing and think about it a lot.

Third, attention is limited. We only have so much of it. So, if attention is capable of being divided but is limited... we can either (1) attend to one thing and think about it a lot or (2) attend to lots of things and think about them a little.


OK. Now that we've talked about the consumer, let's talk about what you, as a marketer, need to do.

First, let's make a distinction between attracting attention and sustaining attention. In many cases, you want to do both. An ad or Web site can have enough in it to initially make consumers focus on it. But remember that attention is selective. If we don't continue to make it interesting, consumers will be off somewhere else.

Doing only the attraction part without the sustaining part simply won't lead to as effective a message. If consumers don't devote enough attention to your ad or Web site, they won't have thought much about your message or Web content. Accordingly, it doesn't have much of an opportunity to affect them (change how they think, make the brand memorable, etc.).

The reason companies are so concerned about zipping and zapping, and the reason Web sites are so concerned about making an interesting site is that they want to sustain attention.

Second, let's think about what we want consumers to attend to. Many companies make a mistake here, because the attention-getting things on their ads or Web sites are irrelevant to their message and distract attention from the main point they are trying to get consumers to focus on and remember.

Remember, consumers' attention is selective and limited. If they focus a lot of some irrelevant element in your ad or Web site, they won't have much left over to process what you really want them to remember.

What do we want consumers to attend to?

We want them to focus on our brand name and our message. We want them to think of us when they have a need for a particular product or service category. We want them to remember whether, how or how much better than or different we are from our competitors. If these are the things we want consumers to focus on, think about and remember, these are the things that need to attract attention.

Why Getting Attention Isn't Always Enough

Lots of companies use interesting and attention-getting ads with the brand name or major takeaway buried somewhere in the ad—completely divorced from the attention-getting element. So what happens? Consumers remember this great ad. But for the life of them, they have no idea what it was for or whose ad it was. This is a huge waste of resources.

If we are dealing with a familiar product and we have a familiar message, maybe consumers can attend briefly to our message and brand name while they are doing something else. They can divide their attention because the ad and message are familiar and well known. This is what reminder advertising is all about.

But if we have a new brand, a new message or something complicated to say, consumers won't possibly be able to attend to this message and simultaneously undertake the complexities of a stressful, multitasking, interruption-filled environment.

Does this mean we can't develop new or complicated messages? No, it just means that we have to be all the more careful about making consumers attend to the right things and make sure our message is interesting enough to have them put aside something else and think about us alone.

What Attracts and Sustains Attention

Psychologists and marketing academics have learned important lessons about what attracts and sustains attention. We list some of them here. Think about them as a checklist for developing your ad, email promotion or Web site. They will help you make your marketing effort interesting and attractive for the right reasons.

On a very broad level, things attract attention if they are personally relevant, pleasant, surprising or easy to process. There are a lot of ways in which we can achieve these things:

1. Is it personally relevant?

Consumers pay attention to things that have implications or consequences for their lives, especially if they appeal to their needs, values or goals. Mothers, for instance, pay attention to ads that feature kids because kids are relevant to their needs, values and goals.

We also pay attention to people who look, act or seem like us, perhaps because we think they have similar needs, values and goals, similar problems and, perhaps, because they might know something we don't.

Are you attuned to who your typical target consumer is? Are you using people like them in your ad? On your Web page?

Another way to capture consumers' attention is to ask rhetorical questions—those asked merely for effect. Questions like "How would you like to win a million dollars?" and "Aren't you glad you use Dial? Don't you wish everyone did?" make the consumer think, "Yeah, I do!" It gets consumers to shift their attention to your brand or service and what it can do for them.

2. Is it pleasant?

We attend to things that are inherently pleasant. No doubt this has evolutionary significance. We want to approach things that make us feel good and avoid those that don't. So, for the marketer appealing to the more primitive desires in consumers, here's what can be done:

Use attractive visuals. Advertisements containing attractive models have a higher probability of being noticed because the models arouse positive feelings or a basic sexual attraction. You also pay attention to beautiful sunsets, cute babies, enticing food, and beautifully decorated rooms. They are all pleasant to look at.

Music is another way of making something pleasant. Familiar songs have considerable attention-getting power, which is why some companies have used popular and familiar music and famous artists like Reba McEntire, Aretha Franklin and the Beatles in commercials. Optimally, the chosen music should fit with the message you are trying to send.

Humor can also be an effective attention-getting device. This is perhaps one reason that Clio award-winning ads become winners. They have attracted the attention of the people who vote for them.

The problem with humor is that not everyone agrees on what is funny. And a good joke loses its punch after it's repeated a few times. Companies misstep with humor when the joke is completely unrelated to the point of the ad. The result? People remember the humor, not the brand name or message.

3. Is it surprising?

Consumers also attend to things that are surprising. Again, evolution explains this phenomenon. We are automatically conditioned to react to things that are surprising because we have to quickly judge how to respond to them (should we fight, run away or approach this surprising thing?).

Two things make a stimulus surprising: novelty and unexpectedness.

We attend to novel things—those that are new and unique—because they are different and require analysis. Of course, being new, unique and different is hard work and requires creativity. Talking Internet ads, shockwave technology, pop-up ads and the like were all, at one time, novel ways of attracting attention. Unfortunately, once something new comes along, its very success makes others want to copy it, which then makes it old, not new.

While we have been talking about advertising and Web pages, remember that products, packages and brand names that are novel will also grab attention. The perfume labeled "Dirt" is, you must admit, different. "Catalyst for Men," packaged in test tubes and laboratory flasks, will certainly stand out from other fragrances at Macy's.

Something important to remember about novelty: things that are new are not always preferred. We often dislike food, for instance, that tastes different from what we usually eat. The same goes for new clothing styles and new and unusual music.

A second feature affecting surprise is unexpectedness. Unexpected stimuli are not necessarily new, but their placement is different from what we are used to. 3-M created attention with surprising ads that featured chickens with fluorescent, stick-on notes with words like "Rush" and "Copy" stuck to their bodies. One company showed a picture of a man and woman gazing intently at their wallpaper while their baby swung from the ceiling fan. Unexpectedness is much easier to achieve than novelty.

Although unexpected stimuli attract attention, using things that are too unusual can sometimes be confusing. Thus, we might pay attention to them, but then decide they are so weird that we don't want to focus on them any more. This potential problem is illustrated in the Reebok U.B.U. campaign that used bizarre images like a three-legged man and a ballerina vacuuming the lawn. Though effective in getting the attention, the visuals were confusing and rendered the ad unsuccessful.

Next week, in part 2, we will look at how to make your messages easy to process.

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image of Debbie MacInnis

Dr. Deborah J. MacInnis is the Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, and a co-author of Brand Admiration: Build a Business People Love. She has consulted with companies and the government in the areas of consumer behavior and branding. She is theory development editor at the Journal of Marketing, and former co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. Professor MacInnis has served as president of the Association for Consumer Research and vice-president of conferences and research for the American Marketing Association's Academic Council. She has received the Journal of Marketing's Alpha Kappa Psi and Maynard awards for the papers that make the greatest contribution to marketing thought. She is the co-author of a leading textbook on consumer behavior and is co-editor of several edited volumes on branding.