Paying very little attention

First and most important, low-attention processing does not slip under the radar of consciousness, it slips under the radar of awareness.

A subtle distinction, but important, especially if you are thinking about the ethics of advertising. Ads that can only be processed without consciousness (ie. physically cannot be perceived) are classified as subliminal, a form of advertising which is now banned.

But frankly it wouldn’t matter if subliminal advertising was not banned, because all the research done to date suggests it doesn’t work. The thing about low-attention processing is that you can see/hear and pay attention to everything, but your mind just chooses not to.

Second, low-attention processing is a natural part of our perception of the world about us, but it doesn’t mean that advertising is effective because it isn’t attended to. It simply means that certain types of advertising are effective even though they are not attended to. That is an important distinction.

Elements like music or emotionally charged visuals (the Andrex puppy, for instance) can easily be perceived without paying active attention. Brands are less easy to perceive and register without attention. I believe advertising works best if at least some active attention is paid, but I believe that the most successful advertising also works when attention isn’t paid.

Alan Mitchell expresses some doubts about how well low-attention processing deals with a cluttered environment. Nothing performs well in a crowded environment, but the result of clutter is to diminish attention – we filter out those elements we are not interested in.

What is critical is that emotion can be processed without attention being paid. So if your competitive edge is founded on an emotional communication, you stand a much better chance of communicating it than if it is a rational claim. And, believe me, there are countless variations on the usual suspects, which are able to establish emotional high ground, as every ad agency in the UK will tell you.

Alan also expresses concern about the cost of repeating exposure of advertising. Rest assured, increased budgets are not necessary. The evidence is that most advertising is rarely attended to after the first couple of exposures, and all television campaigns allow for at least six exposures, most aiming to achieve 15 opportunities to see or more. The repetition is already built in to modern TV schedules: all that is needed is for the advertising to be designed the right way.

And the right way has nothing to do with ramming in the idea. That is the language of the “persuasion” school of advertising, beloved above everything in the US – “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you have told them”.

Emotional communication doesn’t have to be rammed in, because there isn’t any way for us to defend ourselves against it. True, as Alan points out, we can edit and counter-argue an emotional message if we are aware of it – for example, we can tell ourselves that the Andrex puppy is just a con trying to make us buy toilet paper, and we can tell ourselves that the feelings evoked by the British Airways music are not representative of the reality of flying. But as soon as our attention wanes then the rational defences wane as well, and we end up processing associations of family love and softness and comfort and relaxation without even knowing it.

That’s one reason why Andrex has for the past 20 years outsold all its competitors even though it costs more, and one

reason why people still pay twice or three times as much for the privilege of flying on BA.

This is the really important thing about low-attention processing. The behaviourist would have us believe that we can resist emotional claims, but their theories assume that our thinking when we make brand purchases is ordered and logical. It isn’t.

The classic example of an experiment I quote in my recent work, when respondents were offered chocolate cake or fruit salad as a reward, shows this all too well. When they were given a leisurely amount of time to make the decision they wisely chose the fruit salad. When they were pressured to make a choice they chose the chocolate cake.

Now tell me whether supermarket shopping these days is leisurely or pressured?

Is low-attention processing ethical? (I must point out that this is not a new way of advertising. It is the way many successful ads have been constructed for the past 30 years or more.) The answer is that I do not know. But when I wrote the book I did not do it to cynically exploit consumers – a cynic would have shut up and let the whole thing carry on. I wrote it because it is important that these things are known.

As Alan rightly says, when ads are employed to sell products to children and other vulnerable groups, then this sort of technique needs to be trumpeted from the rooftops. And low-attention processing continues to be used all over the world to sell products we know are harmful to all types of people . The Marlboro cowboy, for instance, which only ran in the UK for three months in 1974, is still universally recognised by youngsters in this country. Likewise, when children see Marlboro on the side of the world F1 champion’s Ferrari they automatically associate the brand with excitement and wealth and all the other trappings of the sport.

That doesn’t need attention paid to it, because the processing happens even at the lowest level of attention. Abuses like this have happened and continue to happen, and I like many others firmly believe they should be stopped.

But I wouldn’t presume to say whether low-attention processing is ethical in general, any more than I would say that it is unethical for a boy to play romantic music to a girl when he invites her back to his place for coffee.

And I wouldn’t presume to say it is a breakthrough in terms of tackling the problems of modern marketing and advertising. I would just point out that it has been at the heart of almost every one of the ad campaigns we all know and have loved for the past many years.

It is surely up to the Government or the advertising industry (either of which, incidentally I am now a part of) to make these decisions.

Robert Heath

University of Bath School of Management

Bath, Avon

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