Declining Attention in an Age of Distraction

Posted by Ann Newland & Hayley Mink on November 6, 2015

Psst! Hey you, want some free money? Pardon our catch line; we only had about 6 seconds to capture your attention so there’s no money. We know you’re disappointed but we will explore why those 6 seconds are so important later. And actually, being able to catch and keep your attention sums up the 2015 eMarketer Attention conference held in late October in New York City.

For those still hanging on and providing your attention, there’s a good possibility you are also checking your email while reading this blog post. The latest numbers show U.S. adults currently consume 12 hours a day of media thanks to our multitasking habits.

As a whole, we are increasingly consuming more media at once and our attention is divided between multiple outlets. This might be a problem for marketers or even your friends. However, here’s something positive we learned that can be applied when addressing consumers (and your friends) -- a great story will help people pay attention. This is not a new concept but definitely more important with the increasingly divided attention of consumers.

This fractured attention span is not unnoticed and the growing awareness of intrusion from advertisers is addressed by author Matthew B. Crawford. Crawford discusses constant bombardment from TV’s, phones, etc. and losing our personal space. Silence is now a luxury that you can pay for – think quiet VIP waiting areas, digital detox retreats and so forth. Yikes! Let’s go back to that good ‘story stuff’ that people want to hear!

But first, let’s discuss those 6 seconds. According to Patrick Renvoise, it all comes back to your reptilian brain which is evolutionary older than other parts of your brain and makes your decisions. If you’re creating ads, building a pitch or writing a blog post, any consumer decision to pay attention (or purchase) happens within 6 seconds. Compare that to 2000, when the attention span was 12 seconds. Consider that the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. That’s longer than our attention span! Hey, that reptilian brain isn’t perfect but it sure is fast!

So what speaks to your reptilan brain? Content that relates to you (self-centered); contrasts that show before and after (i.e. images of pre and post surgery), tangible concepts, memorable beginnings and endings, visual explanations, and playing to emotions.

Your reptilian brain understands this image.

Knowing what we know about consumer behavior: increasingly divided in attention; need for compelling stories; reptilian brain prompted by visual and emotions -- what does this mean? One panel discussed implications on advertising and fielded a series of questions about the state of advertising and appealing to today’s consumers. General thoughts included:

  • As technology has evolved, so have we. One panelist even stated: "We're victims of the platforms we use to communicate with each other.”
  • In the 80’s advertising was about persuading consumers and present day advertising and marketing is about participation. Bringing consumers into the conversation and even having them lead them will help with the success of any campaign.
  • There was agreement that advertisements that were shorter or faster were not necessarily better. All panelists agreed consumers must be in the conversation and messages with meaning need to be used regardless of length.


Marketers were the target audience for this conference, but it was also empowering for me, the consumer and average American. Thinking back to all those times I’ve been multi-tasking on media and not quite absorbing either activity comes to mind. I also know that in-person communications should take precedence over checking my phone and I will make an effort to do this more. I also know a bit more about how I think and why images appeal to my gut instinct. I am aware that advertisers know how I think but they are limited without my participation. However this conference has taken a step in the right direction and I believe advertisers are working to get that right balance. In fact, I just may want to listen to what they say.