The Distracted Viewer

To grab the attention of increasingly distracted viewers, advertisers are relying on more gimmicks and gags than ever before. Consider the recent Rob Lowe DirecTV spots. In them, the “real” Rob Lowe appears along side various freakish incarnations of himself—slick bodybuilder, geek and so on.

These spots are funny and likely got your attention, but to what end? After the weirdness wears off, you’re left with little reason to switch from cable to DirecTV.  So much of the spot revolves around the disquieting version of Rob Lowe that the selling message is subordinated. 

We’re seeing a growing number of commercials—from big budget branding spots to DRTV efforts--that use special effects (i.e. talking animals) and other forms of outrageousness to make people sit up and take notice. Here’s why.  A recent study by global research firm TNS shows that 48% of viewers are checking email, using social media and shopping online while watching television.  A 2014 Nielsen study also found a high rate of second-screen usage: two thirds of tablet users reported surfing the web while watching television, and 49% of smart phone users said they were also online while the television was on.

Television viewers are more distracted than ever before, and advertisers want to win back the primary focus of their audience. Startling imagery, black humor or emotional appeals may evoke surprise, laughs and tears, but they don’t always produce sales.  As soon as the shock wears off or the tears dry, viewers are left with little reason to pay attention—or to think about buying the advertised product or service.

Certainly some television spots are more concerned with brand building than generating sales, and they use a variety of methods—emotion, imagery and yes, shock—to create and maintain their brand.  That’s fine.  What’s not fine is overreacting to increased viewer distractability. 

Those of us in the direct response television business have contended with the challenge of keeping distracted viewers focused on commercials long before the advent of social media and mobile communication—the effectiveness of a DRTV spot depends on keeping viewers glued to the screen until the offer is made and the 800 number or URL comes on the screen.   The challenge of meeting this objective is even greater today.

Here are three options for gaining and keeping viewer attention: 

  1. Use the door-to-door salesperson technique.  Salespeople for an iconic brand such as Avon know that when you knock on someone’s door, you have only seconds before that door is slammed in your face; they use those precious seconds to describe the product’s benefits so convincingly that prospects don’t become distracted or disinterested. More than ever before, advertisers need to do the same.  Trust in a product’s or service’s value proposition and convey it creatively, demonstrably and clearly.  This will work infinitely better than an attention-getting gimmick.
  2. Make sure the spot airs at the right times, on the right stations and on the right programs.  Some spots shouldn’t appear in network prime time.  Viewers are easily distracted because they are general interest viewers seeing a niche audience spot.  The ever-expanding number of special-interest stations and programming provides a great opportunity for targeting, but it also requires tremendous media buying savvy to capitalize on this opportunity.
  3. Test your spot’s “stickiness”.  Most spots these days include a URL, even ones that aren’t officially designated as DRTV.  Measure how many clicks and click-thrus a commercial generates.  You know you’ve lost viewers to their other devices if few people are clicking.  Instead, find ways to capitalize on the devices television viewers are holding and motivate them to respond via these devices.

People aren’t watching television with the same focus as they had years ago, but they also are quicker to spot a come-on when they see it; they’re far more sophisticated than in the past and whether you’re using a scantily-clad body or a bizarre image, they may be turned off by your inauthentic attempt at attention-getting. 

If your objective is only to build the brand, that’s one thing.  But if you want to sell, have faith in what you’re trying to sell.  Believe that viewers who are in the market for the type of product or service you’re offering will give you their full attention if you do a good job of describing the offer and its benefits.  Have the courage to be genuine, to sell without hype or hysterics, and you’ll be rewarded with many attentive viewers… and customers.