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Understanding ‘the focusing illusion’ is key to better advertising

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Are advertisers focusing on the wrong things?

The great behavioural economist of our age, Daniel Kahneman, was once asked what was the one scientific concept (if properly explained) that would improve everyone’s understanding of the world.

This was how he summarised his answer. ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it’. It has been called ‘the focusing illusion’ and its implications are profound for the communications industry. Any advertiser who gets an audience to focus on a key element of a message pre-loads it with importance.

But how and why does this work?

Kahneman’s original research was interested in exploring how we all make decisions about quality of life. He discovered that while we are generally reasonable at this we often get befuddled, not so much by our emotions but by a ‘cognitive bias that occurs when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event, causing an error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome’.

For example, when we think about what it must be like to live in California or be a paraplegic or a lottery winner we tend to focus on specific aspects of each of these conditions. The California resident must be happier than say the Midwesterner, paraplegics must struggle through life and as for lottery winners well they must be happy, right? And yet for all of these examples the truth is very different.

While the climate in California is great the crime rate is terrible and it lies on an active fault line. Paraplegics sometimes struggle with certain aspects of their lives but most of the time focus on just getting on with things quite happily. And the lottery winning feeling quickly dissipates as the novelty wears off and things like relationships, friends and family take over in importance. The mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion.

The art of 'pre-suasion'

This is where it gets interesting for advertisers.

We’ve always known that achieving some form of attention is fundamental to the success of most advertising. Ok, there is still some debate about whether this attention works best at a low involvement, subconscious level or a more overt ‘message transmission’ level. But there is always a need to generate attention. By understanding the focusing illusion, however, we can pre-direct attention to precisely the areas that will more likely lead to a purchase or some other positive behaviour.

The behavioural psychologist, Robert Cialdini (best known for his six universal principles of influence) has explored this very phenomenon in his latest thinking, which he calls, ‘Pre-suasion’. He notes that quite often the best attention-shifting techniques are so subtle as to be barely noticed by the recipient.

Research with an online furniture retailer in the US illustrates this perfectly. In a seemingly simple test the retailer decided to pre-direct visitors either to the idea of ‘comfort’ or ‘economy’. To do so they changed the background image on the site to either fluffy clouds or pennies. Everything else about the site was left unchanged –product range, pricing, etc.

The results were fairly startling. In the case of those people that had visited the fluffy cloud version of the site, most had assigned elevated levels of importance to comfort when asked what they were looking for in a sofa. They searched the site for more information pertaining to comfort and overwhelmingly ended up choosing and buying a comfier and more expensive sofa than those not exposed to this version of the site.

And just to make sure that the results were due to the background image and not to some human predisposition to comfort, the pennies version of the experiment worked in a similar way. These ‘penny version’ visitors assigned greater levels of importance to price, searched mostly for cost information and went on to buy more inexpensive sofas. Of course, (as is often the way with explicit feedback) most of the recipients claimed to have not been affected by the background images in any way.

Put simply, I believe the focusing illusion tells us some fundamental truths about advertising success. The attention you need can be pre-directed in the subtlest of ways. Repeated exposure works, precisely because it is not being consciously processed. Seemingly inconsequential imagery can be a potent form of valuable influence.

All of these revelations can only add to our critical understanding of how best to drive success for our clients in 2019. The importance of which, I think we can all agree, we should be under no illusions about.

Chris Pearce is chief executive of TMW Unlimited & Partner Unlimited Group

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