The not-so-invisible gorilla: Make your advertising work in the attention economy [VIDEO]

You probably know about this experiment: Watch a video of a bunch of people passing two basketballs around. You have to keep track of the number of passes made.

The point of this experiment isn’t about how good you’re at counting and remembering, but whether or not you notice a gorilla walking into the frame, beating its chest, before walking off the frame. Many don’t. This experiment has since become a famous demonstration of inattentional blindness—when our attention is focused on one thing, we may not notice anything else.

A forgotten aspect of this study is that you’re more likely to miss the gorilla if you’re asked to perform the more difficult task of separately counting the number of bounced and aerial passes. Contrary to the popular but simplified takeaway from this study, we’re actually still somewhat quite capable of noticing irrelevant objects even with minimal attention.

Even among advertising practitioners, the predominant idea is that ads don’t work when we don’t pay attention. Prof. Chan Yun Yoo suspected otherwise and decided to carry out an experiment. Without telling the participants the true nature of his study, he divided them into three groups (see diagram below).

One day later, the participants were asked to choose from a list the online movie retailers they’d consider buying from. Groups 2 and 3 were about twice as likely as the Group 1 to consider the retailer advertised the day before. Okay, advertising creates awareness creates consideration. Nothing too groundbreaking. What’s surprising is that Groups 2 and 3 were almost equally likely to consider the advertised retailer, despite the latter paying minimal attention to the ad. What’s going here?

Implicit attention and memory in advertising

Advertising is able to influence us even when we’re not paying attention. That’s a big claim. Even though there’s ongoing debate about how automatic the process is, the general agreement is that we’re indeed able to accumulate and then recall information from our surroundings without active attention.

For example, a meta-analysis of 21 empirical studies found only “mild” effects of divided attention on the encoding and retrieval of implicit memory. Advertising in video games has also been found to be noticed and remembered implicitly by gamers who, of course, were paying more attention to the action rather than the ads.

More supporting evidence comes in the form of the “errorless learning” approach, which is essentially a guided learning experience that doesn’t require learners to use their explicit memory to trial-and-error hypotheses about what’s correct and what’s not. A meta-analysis of this technique revealed its exceptional utility in rehabilitating patients with memory impairment. When applied to the teaching of golf skills, it was discovered that errorless learners performed better than the trial-and-error learners, even under artificial stress.

Even without using errorless learning, amnesiacs have been found to be able to apply newly learned skills, despite not remembering having learned them (for a review, refer to p. 509 of this paper). The superior durability of implicit memory has also been found in an advertising-related study.

It’s easy to see what the implications are for marketing. Especially considering how long-term advertising works by (discreetly) implanting and refreshing a product’s name and relevant associations (i.e. brand) in the consumers’ minds. This implicit memory then gets brought up as part of a consumer’s consideration set (along with competing brands) when it’s time to make a buying decision. Advertising may be more powerful than many of us think. To be more precise, CERTAIN types of advertising.

The power of emotional advertising

Let’s take a look at an ad campaign from 2001 (case study adapted from Seducing the Subconscious).

These seemingly unremarkable ads were from O2, a mobile service operator in the UK. The company had just relaunched because it wasn’t doing too well previously. Oddly enough, these ads didn’t seem to convey a lot of information, just somewhat abstract visuals and a lot of bubbles. Viewers were puzzled about what the ads were trying to tell them.

Riding on the back of these ads, O2 become the market leader in 2005. O2 wasn’t better value than its competitors, offered no functional superiority, neither did it engage the public with any kind of exceptional promotion. How the hell did this kind of advertising turn out to be so effective?

To put it simply, the ads lulled the audience into a state of low attention (if they weren’t already while watching TV), implanted the memories of its brand name (O2) and key brand asset (bubbles), and refreshed these memories over and over again (these ads ran for years). And the ads were easy and pleasant to digest (emotional associations to the brand). When it was time to choose a mobile service provider, the O2 brand was big and shiny in many consumers’ consideration sets.

What exactly is emotional advertising?

Maybe the O2 ads aren’t exactly what comes to your mind when you think of emotional advertising; after all, they don’t contain tear-jerking scenes of filial piety set against the backdrop of urban Bangkok.

Emotional advertising, in this context, is merely a contrast to advertising that seeks to persuade you with facts and information. O2 could have easily launched a campaign boasting about their coverage or low prices, but that wouldn’t have worked with the mainstream audience in an attention economy. (Yes, we were already short on attention back in the 00s.)

Does emotional advertising work on everyone?

I’m sure there were high-involvement consumers of mobile service providers in the UK back then. They’d do their research, compare the pros and cons of each provider, etc. These were folks who were happy to spend a lot of attention on the topic, and were less influenced by a bunch of bubbles. However, as established by the adoption curve, only a minority of any market is high-involvement.

The mainstream consumers, where the real money and growth is, rely less on their own knowledge and more on social proof, feelings, and other heuristics. They are rational too, but within their unique sets of limitations and levels of enthusiasm. The mainstream market, hence, tends to be lower in involvement levels. The mainstream market tends to give you less attention than your innovators or enthusiasts.

Here are some examples of how low-involvement most people are with regards to certain products or topics:


A 2015 experiment on the selection of branded disposable razors in an online environment found that among low-involvement participants, attitudes towards a brand were more closely correlated with their purchase intents, compared to the high-involvement participants.

A Greek study discovered that one of the most important factors that determined low-involvement wine drinkers’ brand choice is the bottle design.

Group belonging

An experiment showed that you could get people to accept policies they normally wouldn’t agree with, simply by claiming that those policies came from the political party they supported.

Another example of how group belonging can shift political attitudes came from a 1943 study which documented how college kids from conservative homes became more liberal over the course of their tertiary education. This shift didn’t occur in students who maintained close contact with their conservative families.


Here’s a famous and particularly cheeky example of how people flock towards things that are already popular: Interviewers go to big music festivals with fake band names and ask festival-goers if they’ve heard of them.

It’s a little cruel, but most people simply aren’t high-involvement music geeks. Most people go to music festivals because they’re fun (i.e. sex and drugs) and great for Instagram. In a similar vein, music that’s known to be popular becomes even more popular.

The ONLY way to advertise to the mainstream market?

The hook for the mainstream market needs to be emotional. In fact, not only do mainstream consumers pay more attention to emotional advertising in low-involvement or low-attention states, this kind of advertising may actually work best in those conditions.

Robert Heath, who provided the case study on O2’s advertising, argues that paying less attention to emotive advertising makes us less able to counter-argue it in our minds, thus increasing its effectiveness.

So, what are the business effects of emotional advertising? A long-term study of 996 ad campaigns from more than 700 brands in over 80 categories found that more emotional ad campaigns are correlated with long-term profit than rational campaigns.

13% of emotional campaigns that run for a year reported significant profit growth for their brands, compared to 10% of rational campaigns of a similar duration. 43% of emotional campaigns lasting three years were correlated with significant profit growth while only 23% of rational campaigns of the same duration reported the same effect.

“They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

There’s no (ethical) way to force consumers into buying your product. They have the power of choice. What you can do is to get your product into their consideration sets, and to make it more attractive and/or salient than the alternatives. The strength of long-term advertising is its ability to do just that, as I’ve written about in the article about the importance of balancing short and long-term marketing.

Emotional advertising happens to be the best approach to long-term advertising, not least because it can bypass attention walls and can be noticed, learned, and remembered implicitly.

But it’s not easy creating good emotional advertising. If anything, there’s too much ad content that tries too hard. As I mentioned earlier, emotional advertising doesn’t always refer to advertising content that brings out emotional extremes. If it helps, think of it as emotion-led or automatic (i.e. System 1) advertising.

In addition to creating emotions like joy, empathy, or awe, the term emotion-led or automatic advertising can open up more possibilities, e.g. group belonging, popularity, and other concepts popularised by behavioural economists like Kahneman, Thaler, and Ariely.

The question “How to create effective emotional advertising” is heavily dependent on the context of your product, media platform, and audience. Generally speaking, if you wish to employ some sort of storytelling, make sure the plot is closely tied to your brand. Some art directors will hate me for saying this, but ideally, there should be some sort of brand presence right before the peaks of your ad content.

Measurement is another tricky issue—the so-called brand equity created and reinforced by emotional advertising exists as implicit associations and memories in the audience’s minds. Measurement would then typically be qualitative in nature and involve the accuracy and/or speed of elaboration, identification, and generation of relevant stimuli.

Obsession with short-term ROI certainly doesn’t make things easier—the effects of emotional advertising simply cannot be measured fairly over a short period. Les Binet and Peter Field, the researchers involved in that study of 996 ad campaigns suggested evaluating the effects over at least one year. Even then, only about half of the full effects will be apparent in that timeframe.

Just because it’s harder to measure shouldn’t deter any serious businessperson or marketer. The popular saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is actually a severe misquotation. What management legend W. Edwards Deming actually wrote was, “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—a costly myth.”


When it comes to long-term marketing effectiveness in an attention economy, emotion-led advertising deserves serious consideration. The fact that it’s a long-term investment that’s harder to quantify than promotions or growth-hacking techniques is a turn-off for some companies. That’s good news for the other companies as consumers’ consideration sets can only hold so many options. I hope this article can help your company find new peaks with emotional advertising.

Arthur Koh is a mass behaviour consultant. He likes working with challenger brands because it’s rarely great when the biggest guy gets too big.