Based on the widely held view that public attention spans are shrinking, communication professionals have become convinced that it is their job to ‘cut through’ this clutter using any means possible. The resulting tactics ignore the principles of real consumer engagement that can move people to action. It is time for communicators – in brand or cause marketing – to step back and rethink their strategies.
Thanks to a ceaselessly raging perfect storm formed by digital and mobile platforms amplifying and informing the 24-hour news cycle, we now live in a communications and media environment that has given rise to two fundamental-and fundamentally dangerous-pieces of collective “wisdom.”
The first widely accepted assumption is that we are now all afflicted with painfully short attention spans. In less than a decade, the human brain has been so radically reshaped by the Internet and the explosive proliferation of smart phones and social media that sustained focus is nearly impossible. We have become a species of information speed freaks, flitting second-by-second from one digital stimulus to the next. Once capable of comprehending-and composing-symphonies and extraordinary works of literature, we now struggle to make it through a single tweet before skimming to the next link or status update.
The second assumption is that, like angels dancing on the heads of pins, there are more media outlets and communications platforms competing for this thin sliver of attention than ever before. Our attention is premium real estate, with a vast mob of brands, channels and platforms trying to vie, bribe and connive their way in. Only the savviest, smartest or most brazen tactics will be noticed.
It is now widely accepted that to mitigate these presumed challenges, the ultimate goal is to “cut through.” As communications professionals, we must tirelessly strive to create content that explodes through the thicket of advertising, messaging and entertainment, arresting the uncontrollable, compulsive impulse to click away.
Isn’t that just terribly convenient for us?
Suddenly, we all accept as truism a set of beliefs that seem to absolve us from the challenges of long term consumer engagement, allowing us to wallow and traffic in what often amounts to the coarsest, basest and most disposable kinds of content.
Certainly, nothing commands attention more efficiently than direct stimulation of our most primal impulses through images of violence, sex, food or anything that stimulates a reptilian fight-or-flight response. But, honestly, how much strategy, insight and creativity does this really require? Some of us are laughably becoming “communication professionals” in title only.
Under the rubric of “cutting through,” advertising and public relations increasingly draws from the dark shadows and fringes of popular culture-dragging pornography and graphic violence, now more privately accessible than ever before, into the mainstream. From kidnapping to rape to suicide to racism, everything is now fair game for even the most traditional brands. As the toxicity of “shock and awe” communications permeates all aspects of culture, we shrug it off as the necessity and reality of “cutting through” the acrid fog that this kind of work in fact perpetuates.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of it all, though, is our willingness as an industry to accept it so unquestioningly, despite enormous evidence to the contrary. From the almost intricately complicated role-playing video games that find a global audience of players interacting in real time, to the rise of extremely sophisticated television shows that evolve over years of spiraling character arcs and twists and turns, there are plenty of examples of people gravitating not toward the shallower ends of communication and entertainment, but to deeper and more substantive work.
Do consumers really have shortening attention spans, or are they so quick to turn away because they are under constant communications assault? With everything amped up to be louder and more shocking than everything else, it is quite possible that people are not voraciously consuming, but in fact flinching from the increasing onslaught of simplistic, poorly conceived and derivative content. Content perpetuated by the kind of self-serving group think that often drives whole industries and verticals.
In the realm of consumer marketing and branding, this mentality leads merely to campaign failure, lost revenue and an erosion of brand equity.
Merely? Yes-at least when compared to the damage it can do when applied in other disciplines.
In the areas of social health and public affairs, the valuation of “cutting through” over all else is not just totally ineffective. It is actually quite dangerous. These communication styles and tactics are rapidly heightening consumer desensitization and apathy-often dehumanizing the most vulnerable and at-risk members of a society in the process.
In India, there is no greater example of this than the heartbreaking and shameful rape epidemic that has landed the country in the international spotlight.
A search for “rape” on the Times of India website returns more than 1800 separate news stories-the majority for individual incidents, each truly horrific. They appear almost daily, with nauseating similarities in both the crimes and the stories themselves. Few if any articles devote much attention to the victims of these atrocities beyond referring to them as “a woman” or “a tourist” or “a girl.” It is a perpetuation of the dehumanization they have suffered at the hands of their attackers.
As consumer marketing advocates often advise communications professionals working in social marketing and public affairs to adopt branding strategies and best practices, it begs an obvious question.
How exactly do you “cut through” endless, numbing stories of violent rapes against women and girls? (Or disease transmission, or racial profiling, or climate change, or obesity among children, or distracted driving, or the murder and displacement of civilians in war.)
The answer is simple. You don’t.
Ratcheting up lurid details repeatedly, story after story, leads only to intense desensitization or prurience-or worse, both. It intensifies the crisis while demotivating people from trying to make a difference. It is the same as flattening all details to the point of inconsequence: Another AIDS death, another teen suicide after bullying, another accident due to a drunk or texting driver, another drone strike. Gruesome details or not, with no emotional context, it all blurs into the white noise of a violent world-not just easy to dismiss, but necessary to ignore.
In order to succeed in social marketing, particularly in the discipline of public health, it is critical that we start with a different premise: Consumers have an extraordinary capacity for focus if inspired to engage.
The key to accessing and sustaining those greater levels of attention rests in the skilled and decisive deployment of effective communications. One shocking ad-or 1800 shocking stories-will be dismissed or quickly forgotten. But a rich, evenly paced and well constructed communications campaign that speaks with authority and specificity both to andparticularly-about individuals can have extraordinary resonance.
Don’t try to grab the attention of an audience of millions. Try to speak to one person. Don’t try to talk about an epidemic of sexual assaults in a country of 1 billion people. Instead, tell the story of one little girl in Raipur. Instead of just the ugly details of the crime, talk about what her life was like before the attack. Did she like to draw, color, dance, sing? What did she want for her birthday or to be when she grew up? What has changed since being attacked and violated by a predator? Is she having nightmares? Is she able to eat? Play? How is her family coping?
Just pondering questions like this draws in not just a depth of emotional complexity that more effectively reveals the wide-scale horror of what is happening-it also allows readers to connect in the deeply compassionate way that leads to focused outrage, action and results.
Whether those results are along the lines of brand equity and consumer sales, or-more importantly-cessation of the damage caused by public health crises, the principles are the same. Thoughtful, intuitive and strategic specificity heightens sensitivity and commands attention, while sensationalism only serves to desensitize and demotivate.
As consumer branding experts and advertisers urge communications professionals to follow them down the darkening and narrowing alley of shock value, perhaps it is time to take a step back and look at the insights and strategies that have long informed the most successful social marketing campaigns. Rather than constantly trying to “cut through,” with thoughtless, cynical jolts that lead nowhere, let’s instead strive to live up to the real challenges and responsibilities of communications, and create work that that forges true and meaningful human connection. If we want consumers to follow us, we must have somewhere to go-and a clear path to get there.