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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 have no idea what it was for or who it was by. 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 while simultaneously undertaking 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.


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 website. 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, as we explain below.


Consumers pay attention to things that 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 ourselves, perhaps because we think they have similar needs, values and goals, similar problems and perhaps, because they 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.


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:

First, 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. Do you pay attention to ads with Cindy Crawford, Christie Brinkley and Mel Gibson? Of course you do. 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 fits with the message you are trying to send.

Humor can also be an effective attention-getting device. This is perhaps one reason why 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.


Consumers also attend to things that are surprising. Again, evolution explains this phenomenon. We are automatically conditioned 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 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 a much easier thing 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 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.

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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.