The ‘safest’ ads are at greatest risk of going unnoticed

Marketers, like all humans, believe everyone is as interested in their work as they are, leading to ads that fall at the first hurdle by taking it for granted that they will be noticed.

Advertising is blighted by a certain self-absorption. I call it the Barry Manilow problem.

To understand this issue, we need to go back to 2000 and consider a study conducted by Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University.

Gilovich recruited 109 students to take part in an experiment and asked them to arrive promptly at his laboratory at a given time. Once assembled, they were taken in groups of five or six to a smaller room, where they were seated around a table to fill in a questionnaire.

However, one unsuspecting student had been told to turn up 10 minutes later. Upon arrival, the latecomer learned that the experiment was already underway.

The psychologist rushed the student to the research room, but just as they reached the door asked him to swap his T-shirt for one emblazoned with Barry Manilow’s face. (Perhaps unnecessarily, the researchers had undertaken a previous study that had proved most students found Manilow deeply unfashionable.)

The apparent Manilow fan was escorted into the room and led to the remaining chair. But just as he sat down, the researcher told him: “On second thoughts you’re too late, come with me.”

Once outside the psychologist asked the participant to estimate how many people had noticed his T-shirt. The average guess was 46%. But this was way out. In fact, a mere 23% had logged Manilow’s face.

READ MORE: Richard Shotton: Aim for average and you’ll serve no one well

Gilovich wanted to check this result wasn’t a fluke so he re-ran the study with another 79 students. His second experiment followed the basic procedure of the first but this time the latecomer was given a T-shirt with a more fashionable figure.

The result? There was an even greater discrepancy between the latecomer’s estimates and the actual awareness of the others.

Prioritise being noticed above other goals. If you fail there, everything else is academic.

Gilovich christened his finding the ‘spotlight effect’. It’s the idea that we believe we’re the centre of attention far more than is the case.

In Gilovich’s words: “Whether making a brilliant point in a group discussion, contributing to a successful project or executing the perfect jump shot on the basketball court, we sometimes find that the efforts we view as extraordinary and memorable go unnoticed or underappreciated by others.”

Smash your category’s norms

Marketers are just as prone to this flaw as students. There’s a tendency to overestimate people’s interest in our brands. Perhaps because we’re so interested in the minutiae of our brands, we assume others share that enthusiasm. Psychologists call this the ‘false consensus effect’, the finding that we overestimate the prevalence of our own behaviours and views.

This overestimation of the level of interest manifests itself in ads being created that take being noticed for granted – copy that fixates on the second-step problem of perfecting its message rather than the first-step problem of grabbing people’s attention. That assumption is misplaced. Data from Lumen shows that only 9% of digital ads are looked at for more than a second.

So, what should you do? First, prioritise being noticed above other goals. If you fail there, everything else is academic.

Second, apply the findings of von Restorff, who 80 years ago discovered that the best way to be noticed is to be distinctive. Despite this finding being well established in psychology, much advertising slavishly abides by category conventions. That mimicry comes at a cost.

According to Vic Polkinghorne, founder of creative agency Sell! Sell!: “What might seem like a safe choice in the confines of a boardroom will most likely be a waste of money when it’s out in the real world. Advertising that feels safe or familiar is actually quite risky – there’s no ‘safety in numbers’ when it comes to advertising. If someone else is doing something similar to what you’re doing, or looks or sounds like you, you’re both in trouble.”

Your task is to identify the formulaic rules of behaviour in your category and smash them. That way the spotlight will shine a bit more strongly on your brand and, maybe, advertising can rid itself of the Barry Manilow problem.

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD and author of The Choice Factory, a book about applying behavioural science to advertising. He tweets at @rshotton.