The 30-second TV slot has ruled the advertising roost since the 1970’s when brands had plenty of time to get their message across as captive audiences sporting paisley shirts and flares passively watched their brand-new colour TVs. 

But today’s consumers are fundamentally different to their predecessors, not only in their style choices but also in the way they consume media content and advertising.  Smartphone addiction, multi-tasking, and information overload are altering the way human brains operate and dramatically changing behaviour patterns. 

A recent Deloitte study reveals 60% of people use a second screen such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop while watching TV, and brands can reach consumers via any of these devices, yet many still design their digital campaigns as if they are targeting those passive audiences of the 1970s; a consumer who no longer exists.

To engage today’s distracted consumers, brands must first understand how multitasking is rewiring the human brain and then design digital campaigns to achieve maximum attention.    

The evolution of the chronically distracted consumer

A seismic shift in media consumption means consumers are now exposed to multiple different types of media, often concurrently, resulting in the dilution of content consumption and high levels of distraction. Consumers’ perceptual load – a term used to describe the amount of stimulation the brain can process – is often at or above capacity in this new media-heavy world with two distinct outcomes. The first is inattentional blindness, where consumers filter out information they think is irrelevant. The second is controlling their attention, actively hunting for relevant information and blocking out everything else.

This evolution is particularly marked in millennials who switch their attention between media platforms 27 times per hour on average. As a demographic used to multi-tasking across devices, millennials are chronically distracted and therefore less likely to notice and remember information – such as ads – displayed in front of them. Like everyone else, millennials’ brains become blind when overloaded, filtering information, controlling attention and effectively ignoring irrelevant ads. 

Getting through the filter

To prevent ads being ignored or filtered out, brands need to embrace dynamic advertising which can respond in real time to the consumer’s characteristics and circumstances, delivering creative that is both meaningful and attention-grabbing. This type of advertising combines variation and relevance to maximum effect. 

Creative variation is a fairly novel concept in advertising that runs counter to accepted norms and requires fundamental changes in brand perception.  Creative directors have traditionally favoured a singular selling message, with uniform creative elements to deliver consistent branding across multiple touch points. But just because consumers expect a seamless experience when interacting with a brand, that doesn’t mean all creative must be identical. In fact, seeing the same creative multiple times leads to ad saturation and makes it far easier to ignore.  

To make ad variation work brands can look at varying two key creative elements. Simply changing the cosmetic elements such as colour themes or image placements can be enough to keep the ad fresh and less likely to be ignored. On a deeper level, varying the substantive elements of the ad, such as the featured product image or the text of the main message may be necessary to keep the ad relevant and improve the attitude of the consumer towards viewing it.

Using variation of creative elements in a multiple-exposure ad campaign helps avoid ad saturation and makes it less likely an ad will be ignored.  This should not be to the detriment of the creative quality – the underlying concept or idea is still the vital starting point of any good ad campaign, as is investing the time to execute properly. 

To make ads relevant enough to get through the chronic distraction filter, brands can also use a variety of data-driven targeting and personalisation techniques. First, audience or behavioural targeting uses data to reveal consumers’ tastes and preferences, allowing brands to make ads interesting and appealing to the individual.

Second, contextual targeting uses physical contextual cues such as location and weather to serve ads that are pertinent to the users’ circumstances and meet their immediate needs. Finally, brands can personalise ads to the consumer’s position in their research journey or their path to purchase, increasing their relevance and effectiveness. 

Rather like the fashion choices of the 1970’s, and TV sets that require the user to get up and change the channel, advertising techniques that are designed for a passive, captive audience have no place in the modern world. Brands must stop advertising to a consumer who no longer exists and embrace personalisation – sensitively – across the full marketing mix. 

Dynamic advertising delivers a better consumer experience and numerous hard business benefits for advertisers, including speed to market and higher return on spend. The combination of a great creative idea and data-driven content variation are the key to connecting with today’s distracted consumer.