Less Is More

(This was orignially published January 30, 2012, on http://geauxcreative.wordpress.com)

Attention spans in America are shrinking faster than the polar ice caps and Obama’s approval rating combined.  This alarming state raises many questions.  Are we spending too much time in front of the microwave? Is A.D.D. fashionable again? Are Adderall’s pharmaceutical reps in bed with psychologists nationwide?  Although the answer to all of these questions is “Yes,” they are beside the point, and don’t address the real issue at hand. In this day and age of truncated focal capacity, how must we adjust our communication to yield effectiveness and profitability?

Communicating with the distracted can present a frustrating challenge.  It can often be difficult to hold the attention of the scatterbrained long enough even to explain that you are trying to sell them your leftover Ritalin prescription at a really great price, and how generous that is, what with it being exam week and all.  On the A.D.D. scale, I, myself, fall about halfway between “well-grounded human” and “NASA approved space cadet.”  Whether I am in limbo or a liaison, having a foot in both camps offers an interesting perspective and awareness of how my common condition comes to bear on the shape of interaction in general.

Mass communication has undergone many changes that reflect the influence of shortened attention spans.  Long format blogging and email were too burdensome and tedious, so text messaging and microblogging platforms like Twitter set a new attention span standard at about 142 characters.  Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming is comprised in a large part by a score of 15-minute time slots, catering to the ephemerally attentive youth of America.  The best slogans and taglines are four words-long or less, and when was the last time long copy appeared in an ad, anywhere?  Everywhere you look, mass communication is all about short and sweet.

Is this a good thing? Is anything objectively good or bad? Of course not, so, let’s examine a couple of cases that came up in this week on AdAge and AdWeek.

Alloy, the production company behind Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl, is producing a web-based series called “Dating Rules From My Future Self,” and has attained considerable viral success.  While the webisode is not a new or extremely challenging format, what is novel about this concept is that it is released as several seven-minute installments throughout the week.  The webisodes are sponsored by some big names, but because of their diminutive length, there are no commercial breaks.  Instead there is logo-flashing and shameless product placement.  The episode I watched (yes, I’ll admit to that) featured heavy branding from Schick at the intro, and the protagonist’s Siri enabled iPhone 4S is practically a supporting character.  I assume Apple is paying handsomely for their product to get more screen time than several of the human actors.

The viral success of the series and the prestigious promotional partnerships are evidence  of this being  a financially sound format model.  However, it seems questionable whether it will remain desirable, particularly if seven-minute webisodes become the new paradigm for entertainment.  Even the most distracted viewers may be looking for a more lengthy escape session, an extended release.  It’s hard to create depth and build strong emotional connections in seven minutes.  This makes it the perfect amount of time to spend in the closet with someone at a junior-high party, but the wrong amount of time to get viewers to commit to coming back for more. It may be working for the moment, which I attribute to novelty and its singularity in this category.  However, I can’t foresee this being a good bandwagon for other emerging series to jump on.

Also drastically chopping the length of TV spots, Wieden + Kennedy rolled out roughly 120 ads for Target, each clocking in at 15 seconds and highlighting a single product.   In terms of hitting the mark for short attention spans, this campaign is a bull’s eye for Target.  A nine-second lead-in illustrates situations in which a certain product is crucial, but does so in a sufficiently ambiguous and unpredictable manner to make the one-second reveal a true moment of epiphany.  Engaging, clever, and truly relatable, the writing of these ads is brilliant.

Done properly, concise is great.  However, it lends itself best to simplicity.  A complex message about a complex product or proposition may be done a disservice by brevity.  An important distinction between the above cases is that people seek out TV shows and webisodes as a welcome distraction.  Shortening this may decrease satisfaction.  Commercials, on the other hand, are an intrusion of reality into TV fantasyland, an unwelcome distraction from distraction.  So, in the case of commercials, less would often seem to be more.  Ultimately, it is crucial to know the capacity of the audience and the nuances and complexity of the product. Essentially, we are tasked with finding the intersection of how much the audience needs to know, and how much they can stand to hear. –Richard Carman


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