In the comments to an earlier post on advertising, Helen said

We tend to take in less information than advertisers thought or hoped: generally about three seconds worth. Also the more they try and bombard us the quicker we ‘shut down’….we have become very selective in our information uptake and processing. [Experiments have] also found that products were negatively rated if the advert was particularly intrusive/annoying /or stopped us doing something (eg those pop ups on the internet). Maybe we will have less intrusive but more effective advertising in the future on the basis of this…? Be thankful that right now it may be annoying but that you automatically cut it out after three seconds so has little effect on you.

I think Helen is thinking of this article from New Scientist Is advertising flogging a dead horse? (24 December 2005). Which contains quotes such as


They used a camera embedded in a pair of glasses to record people’s gaze as they glanced at ads during a shopping trip or journey to work. After analysing the recordings and questioning the subjects, they found that most of the ads made no impression at all: only around 1 per cent could be recalled without prompting. It seems that although we may be looking at brands and advertisements all day long, most of the time we’re not taking anything in.

Which makes the dangerous assumption that if you can’t consciously and spontaneously recall information you didn’t absorb it at the time and aren’t affected by it now (there’s an example of an experiment showing otherwise here: music, wine and will).

Later in the article, the corollary of this assumption is explicitly spelt out:


In short, the reason most advertising doesn’t work is that we’re in a chronic state of attentional overload. Unless advertising is presented in a way the brain can absorb, it is simply not seen

Sure, if you want people’s focal attention, their conscious deliberation and their active support then it is going to be harder and harder when they are bombarded by a million different messages and a million different demands on their time. But although adverts may work this way – or some adverts at least – that doesn’t mean that all adverts do. Some kinds of advertising may work better when you’re not paying attention and when you’re not consciously deliberating about the values they are inculcating in you.

Relevant link: Guardian article about the healthy mental environment movement