Loyola University Maryland

Emerging Media

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It takes an advertisement to teach us how advertising doesn’t work

by Loyola emerging media director and professor, Neil Alperstein, P.h.D.

If you drive to work on a routine basis, have you ever upon arriving at your destination thought to yourself: “How the hell did I get here?” Driving to work is such a routine act — same route, same stop lights, same speed — that often times we find ourselves thinking about other things; things other than driving.

Perhaps thinking about things other than what is before us — in this case driving — is a more common occurrence than we once thought. Paying attention while driving is important. I think we can all understand why: at risk is your life and the lives of others. But I am here to tell you that drifting off into one’s stream of consciousness while driving is not unusual. One might say metaphorically speaking: we are driven toward distraction.

I want to raise a question to you: if we engage in fantasy while doing something important, like driving, then what about being teleported to “never never land” when we are doing other routine behaviors, like talking to others at a social event, or watching television or staring at other screens, as we do much of our day? Staring at screens of various sizes is part of the taken-for-grantedness of everyday life. We may not think much of this inner experience, but there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

In my book, Advertising in Everyday Life, I devote a chapter to the ways in which we engage in stream of consciousness activities while consuming media. And, there is a lot of other research out there to confirm such behavior. So, it’s understandable that as advertising is a reflection of society — although I would contend that the worldview that it presents is not a direct reflection, but rather a refracted or distorted view — that some marketer, in this case Kia automobiles, would depict the very scenario that I described at the beginning of this essay.

In the video advertisement for the Kia Forte, a young woman, is driving down the street, listening to music; music being a trigger to send her to engage in fantasy. In this case, the woman, as she sings along with the popular song playing on the radio, is visually teleported to the stage of a singing competition, like America’s Got Talent, where she faces her three judges, which happen to be three versions of her — a no lose fantasy. The celebrity wannabe is drawn back to reality — and we with her — as she comes to an abrupt halt due to autonomous emergency braking, a key distinguishing feature of this car. The fantasy serves as a vehicle (no pun intended) to demonstrate the uniqueness of this car.

The scenario presented in the Kia commercial mimics the experience that I described at the beginning of this essay in which routine experiences promote fantasy behaviorstream of consciousness.

It is a little ironic that an industry that is premised on consumers paying attention to their commercial messages would depict the very distraction that consumers experience, not only when driving, but when consuming advertising. In other words, there are triggers in commercials that both encourage us to fantasize and that draw us back into the commercial, like music, a character, sound effects or something else, like some contextual element in the scenery. Whatever the trigger, I have been able to identify three processes that lead us astray. The first, is what I call fading, in which the consumer begins to pay attention to what is before them, but makes a temporal shift to think about something else. They may or may not be drawn back to the commercial, or they may fade away and fade back in, only to fade away again. The second process is what I call blanking, where the consumer loses consciousness of what is before them. It’s kind of like the description I gave before regarding driving to work and thinking “how did I get here?” The third response is what I call lucid fantasy relating to the dual awareness of being present and at the same time carrying on some internal musing: fantasizing, thinking or engaging in self talk.

All three of these processes speak against the efficacy of advertising, although some might argue that the elaborations in which we engage enhance the commercial experience. I doubt that, as so many times consumers, when asked to recall a commercial — aided or unaided — can’t remember the brand, or worse they get the brand mixed up with another, like replacing Doritos with Tostitos.

We learn this form of practiced inattention over time, as it becomes part of our routine behavior. And, for those who think that this concept applies only to viewing television commercials, you need to consider another form of learned avoidance: “banner blindness,” in which people look at the computer, phone or tablet screen and temporally shift away from the ads before them. Print advertising doesn’t get a pass either, as we employ the same strategies across media; even when we have eyes fixed on the page, we may be temporally away.

Most of our stream of consciousness activity comes in the form of memories or anticipations and associated self-talk. In other words, when stimulated our inner imaginary world is quite active. Although in Western culture we don’t recognize the role of the imaginary to the degree that is apparent in some non-Western cultures.

“The regular route through advertising clutter is a highly subjective experience, and when viewers, readers or listeners turn inward a cultural world unfolds, one bounded by memories and anticipations of the future that revolve around familiar scenes, roles and values. The strategy involved in stream of consciousness is a culturally learned strategy, as the individual reworks the content to deal with matters with which they may be already highly familiar” (Advertising in Everyday Life p. 59).

There is much to learn about advertising from advertising. The Kia Forte commercial adds to our knowledge regarding how we attend to what is before our eyes, or don’t. The regular route through advertising is not dissimilar that the regular routine of driving to work everyday, where we may raise the question: how the hell did I get here?

The original, unmodified, post by Dr. Alperstein can be viewed on Medium.