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Do people have to pay attention to advertising for it to work?

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion about low attention processing – increasing evidence suggests that advertising can work even if people don’t pay direct attention to it. In fact, some theories state advertising works better if people pay less attention. However, this is only partly true.

When people don’t really pay attention to advertising, they form an impression. This can happen unconsciously, is stored in our implicit memory and can have a direct impact on sales. However, this type of memory encoding is not sufficient if your advertising is trying to change brand perceptions or to get people to take immediate action. In those cases, advertising benefits from higher attention processing.

How low attention processing works

If advertising wants to affect behaviour then it has to make changes to people’s long-term memory. But there are three different components of long-term memory and they all encode different information.

Our implicit memory is responsible for things we don’t really have to consciously recall. For example: opening a door. When a person is in front of a closed door, they know what to do – they don’t have to consciously think about all the different steps required to open it. Riding a bike, driving a car are all processes our implicit memory is storing for us. In order for something to be stored in our implicit memory we need repetition but it does not require high levels of attention.

When people don’t really pay attention to advertising, they form an impression. This can happen unconsciously, and is stored in our implicit memory. This impression is a warm feeling towards the brand, a feeling of familiarity. Repeated exposure to the advert increases those feelings, makes us recognise the brand more easily and puts the brand top of mind.

When low attention processing works

This impression in our implicit memory is enough to influence our purchase decisions – in certain situations. If the brand is part of a portfolio the consumer considers in a certain category, feeling more familiar and being top of mind may well lead to a higher share of purchases. Also, if a consumer is confronted with a wide choice of brands in a category that they don’t usually buy they may well be swayed by the brand that feels more familiar.

When more attention is required

Whilst encoding in the implicit memory requires very little attention, research shows that to encode information in our explicit memory does require higher levels of attention.

Our explicit memory contains things we can consciously recall. This includes facts, concepts and ideas (for example that McCain chips are tasty), which are all stored in our semantic memory. Our explicit memory also includes specific events and situations (for example remembering watching Coronation Street when a certain advert came on) as episodic memory. Both semantic and episodic memory require higher levels of attention for successful encoding. So, when would advertising need to affect those forms of memory?

Imagine a scenario where several brands are part of a portfolio and are of sufficient size to maintain a constant presence of advertising. All of them bank on low attention processing to increase salience for their brand. Lets also assume this category is subject to heavy discounting and regular promotions – the consumer gets to the supermarket and chooses – whichever one is on offer. They all are familiar, they all feel good – so price becomes the deciding factor.

If we want consumers to pay more (not choose the product on promotion), we have to give them a reason to pay more – and for people to believe that reason they have to process and understand it. Which requires attention.

Another situation when higher attention processing is required is when we are attempting to change perceptions. Several studies have shown that in certain product categories, where consumers have a higher level of involvement, brand attitudes change first before sales increase. This means the consumer has to learn a key fact about the brand and change their perception before they choose to buy it.

Also, if we want consumers to take action, for example giving a donation to an emergency charity appeal, attention is a key component to advertising success.

In summary, whether your ads require attention to work depends on the product category you are in and what your campaign is trying to achieve.

How to optimise your advertising

Emotional Logic is helping brands such as Pringles and the British Heart Foundation to optimise their advertising in line with their campaign objectives. Our ad optimiser is a fast and effective way to measure whether your campaign will achieve your goals – whether this is being top of mind, a change in perception or taking action right now.

Get in touch to find out how we can help increase effectiveness of your advertising.

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