Attention deficit dystopia

Attention deficit dystopia
Sainsbury's 2022 Christmas ad: most 30-second ads are not watched for more than half the time.
Opinion: 100% Media 0% Nonsense

Measuring attention is now big business in media, but it’s unlocking some worrying data for content creators, advertisers and wider society, writes the editor.


Easy media prediction time: we’ll continue to hear a lot more about attention measurement this year. Attention as a commercial media buzzword has steadily gained force in the last several years, particularly as advertisers fret about the death of cookies as a way of following consumers around the internet.

But what happens to attention measurement in a world where attentions spans are dwindling? You don’t have to look far to find a study on how young people’s attention spans are now as low as one second, thanks to a media diet of Reels, Shorts, Love Island and other yoof programming in which the quick cuts are so aggressive it’s almost like being cut for real.

One alarming study from Yahoo and Omnicom’s OMD reports that Gen Z (irritatingly pronounced “Gen Zee” by a good few inattentive Brits in media) loses active attention for ads after just 1.3 seconds. Less than one-and-a half seconds? I’m not even sure my eyes move that quickly, let alone the creaking cogs within my brain — when attention moves this quickly you wonder whether the study’s subjects had any interest in watching anything at all.

In any event, if everyone is measuring attention, are we going to need a smaller ruler?

‘Depressing reality of perpetual distraction’

If you look at TVision’s analysis of last year’s Christmas ads, the average view time for the most “attention-grabbing” ad was 56%. Only two of the Top-10 most-viewed Christmas ads were able to get at least half of the ad watched. 

Drill down deeper into the data and we indeed do see that, in general, the younger the person the less attention they pay to long-form content. Lumen Research MD Mike Follett, who provided the TVision research to The Media Leader last month, warns that attention measurement is revealing a “depressing reality of perpetual distraction”.

“We haven’t seen a massive change in the way the average person looks at things, but we have found that what people are engaging with has changed.”

More data from that study provided to me for this article proved exactly what I feared: people aged 18-24 are much more distracted than other age groups: ads get noticed less, looked at for less time, and crucially, a shorter percentage of the ad gets attended to (the last column in the table, below). The following table filters for just 30-second ads (the most common type of spot bought on TV):

Less than four in 10 people in this youngest age group are watching the ad (38%), while those that do watch are viewing for less than 10 seconds. Notably, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference among the groups above this youngest cohort; it seems to be a distinctly under-24 trait to be highly inattentive to commercial content.

Short form content, meanwhile, is where it’s at. So much so that 15-second video specialist TikTok was the most-downloaded app in the UK last year. Meta (or as TikTok execs would say, “that place I used to work when it was Facebook”), is focusing on its short-form format Reels this year.

Perhaps humanity has already peaked when it comes to having high attention spans. Follett remarks how attention was always “distracted and selective” in prehistoric times, when Neanderthals were engulfed with immediate concerns of hunting and avoiding death by tiger. The invention of writing was initially a product for a very selective elite which became popularised with the printing press.  

Selection for rejection

But consider what this entails for content creators, both on the editorial and commercial sides, who are now well used to honing the “art” of delivering unsubtle and simplistic messages within the first couple of seconds of a video, otherwise you run a high risk that the user will just look away.

This is potentially very dangerous for society and the economy. We all benefit when people are able to handle complex and uncomfortable ideas, which take thought and patience to interpret and understand. In an industry where client service and analysing consumer behaviour is crucial to success, we need people with critical faculties to tell when a seemingly impressive AI tool like ChatGPT is adding value, or even when to resist the cold authority of an all-seeing Sat Nav when it tells you to take a strange route. 

And people wonder why society seems more polarised. If we don’t take the time and effort to focus our attention on people who don’t look and sound like us, or to try and understand challenging political viewpoints, how will we ever compromise in order to create a diverse plurality of ideas in a multicultural society? 

We are focusing very much on trust in media in our content this year and different parts of our industry will often throw blame at different sectors for their role in people no longer believing what they read or see, particularly online. Attention is crucial to trust, too: we will typically place greater faith in people and institutions if we spend more time and focus on them. It’s in media’s interest to hold people’s attention with quality and trusted content, not dominate people’s attention with a barrage of clickbait whose content overpromises and under-delivers.

“Young people spend less time with advertising than older people,” Follett tells me. “It’s probably because young people are better at clocking that something is an ad and so there is much more ’selection for rejection’.”

Whatever attention measurement data is telling us needs to be taken seriously and not just by media buyers and advertisers who are looking for better ways to sell people stuff, but by artists and journalists for whom media is the necessary vehicle to tell their story. 


Omar Oakes is editor of The Media Leader. 100% Media 0% Nonsense is a weekly column about the state of media and advertising. Make sure you sign up to our our daily UK newsletter to get this column in your inbox every Monday.

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