Why “selective attention” can kill your ads

Last week, I asked you to take a test to see if you’re a word nerd. This week, I have another test for you. And it’s a doozy.

The concept is “selective attention.” I don’t want to spoil it, so watch the video below. Don’t cheat. You’ll miss the point entirely if you don’t follow directions and see the results for yourself.


If you followed the directions and tried to count the number of times the people in white shirts passed the basketball, there’s a 50/50 chance you’re amazed right now.

How could you possibly miss the gorilla?

The first time I watched the video, I thought it was a joke. There is no way I could have missed something so obvious. But I watched it again, and sure enough, there it was.

This is the result of selective attention. In law enforcement and military training, they call it tunnel vision. Police officers involved in a physical confrontation, for example, find that their attention is so selective, they can vividly remember certain details, such as the sneakers of a criminal, but miss other details, such as a car accident that happens right in front of them at the same time.

The idea of selective attention is simple: people select to pay attention to some things and not others. That’s because the brain can only take in so much information at once. The more focused a person is on one thing, the less that person pays attention to something else.

Consider how a magician uses this idea to misdirect you. While he’s waving his right hand, you don’t notice what he’s doing with his left.

Selective attention affects advertising messages as well. An obvious example: clever TV ads that seek to entertain you, then throw in few fleeting references or images of the product. Afterward, you may remember the entertaining part of the ad, but not recall the product.

Any time you try to be too clever, inject irrelevant concepts, or take the focus away from the product, you invoke selective attention. Your reader or viewer may miss what may seem painfully obvious to you.

The answer is just as obvious.

Keep your message simple and direct. Focus on the product and its benefits. Avoid overly conceptual or entertaining ideas, clever visuals, or self-indulgent wordplay.

In other words, focus on what’s relevant to assure your prospect sees it.

If you want to learn more about selective attention, visit The Invisible Gorilla.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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3 Responses to “Why “selective attention” can kill your ads”

  1. Storytelling Social Media Marketing PR Business & Technology Curated Stories June 22, 2010 on June 22nd, 2010 5:49 pm

    [...] Why “selective attention” can kill your ads Published: June 22, 2010 Source: Direct Creative Blog Last week, I asked you to take a test to see if you’re a word nerd. This week, I have another test for you. And it’s a doozy. The concept is “selective attention.” I don’t want to spoil it, so watch t… [...]

  2. Cara on June 23rd, 2010 7:13 am

    Very nice test! Well, I didn’t miss the gorilla but counted 17 passes. :) Thing is that when you ask people to pay attention to one thing, the obviously focus on that very thing only. And in advertising if you want to draw attention to one thing, then you’d better make it simple and very easy for people to catch it.
    Got the idea. But I think it also depends on each individual and his capacity to pay attention to details in general and also on external factors that may or may not withdraw his attention from what you want to show him.

  3. Why we don’t see people who have housing problems « Thankful Home: Be thankful for your home. Help others find a place to live. on July 26th, 2010 2:13 pm

    [...] I'm going to try to keep my eyes open. Who knows what I've been missing. How about you? (Thanks to Dean Rieck for sharing the video with [...]

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