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Why negative effects of media multitasking on advertising-impact are overrated!

June 2017 - By Natascha Bhullar: "Maybe we should accept the fact that there is no such thing as having full attention to advertising messages anymore".

Natascha Bhullar

Imagine, you’re watching your favourite TV show and suddenly a commercial break starts. Now what? Do you instantly grab your phone to check out your Instagram feed? Or do you have another ‘commercial ritual’, such as a toilet break or kitchen visit? Whatever you do, you probably won’t be watching the whole thing with the same devotion as you would have with your favourite TV show. Too bad for advertisers, since they continuously struggle to keep viewers interested. Scientists argue this has become worse in recent years due to technological innovations. Smartphones enable us to use media wherever we are and even combine different media activities.

Although research shows that, in general, this so-called “media-multitasking” leads to negative advertising effects, I came to other realizations during my own research. Therefore, I will propose a different view and to advertisers I would say: “Don’t worry!”

New or old phenomenon?

It’s true, we live in an entirely different media era compared to, let’s say, 15 years ago. Nowadays smartphones seem stitched to our hands, almost part of our bodies, allowing us to always be connected with an online world. Sure, we might also be dealing with other issues such as addiction and distraction. However, scientists are putting way too much emphasis on media multitasking as harmful to advertisers due to changes in the media landscape. I believe that “back in the days” we were not doing anything different. We all shy away from advertisements; it’s nothing new. I mean, seriously, who enjoys commercials? They are overdone, noisy and quite often extremely irritating. Consciously or unconsciously we all have our ‘commercial avoiding rituals’ which manifests in anything; from turning the volume down, to talking to our loved ones or daydreaming about summertime. It’s an old phenomenon. We’ve been doing this for ages.

So what?

This means we’ve been dealing with ‘errors’ in information processing for quite a while now. According to science, processing information from different sources is impossible, because our brains have limited cognitive capacities. To process one commercial, you need all cognitive capacities. To process additional information such as intended messages, your brain needs to choose between one or the other. Try to process both? You’ll end up processing nothing. The same accounts for our sensory powers. We can’t use one of our eyes to watch TV and the other to check out Twitter, it’s mission impossible. But since we love media multitasking, the impossibility doesn’t stop us from trying to switch from one task to another.

Talking about switching...

Scientists conducted experiments where one group of people was exposed to a commercial, and another group had an additional task, to test the effects of media multitasking. Advertising effects such as brand recognition or message comprehension were measured and compared among the ‘single’ and ‘multitaskers’. The results? Quite obvious isn’t it? Taking my prior explanation on information processing into account, commercials do have better impact on those who watch with full attention compared to the multitaskers. But how realistic is this experimental lab setting, where single taskers were instructed to watch with full attention, with all distracting elements excluded? This never happens in reality. In reality we keep on switching.

What's the point?

Media multitasking is difficult to grasp, the amount of factors that play a role are endless. My study was an online experiment performed in participants’ private setting. The results didn’t find differences between single and multitaskers. It also didn’t matter if two different tasks were sharing the same modality (e.g. visual-visual or audio-audio). Is a private setting maybe more representative to reality than controlled lab experiments? Maybe there is no such thing as having full attention to advertising messages anymore. I think the answer is very simple yet complicated and we should approach this in a simple manner. Advertisers, continue what you’re doing. Be appealing, interesting, funny whatsoever. For sure, future will bring better advertising opportunities, like the possibility to advertise through multiple media simultaneously.


Finally, a not so obvious conclusion. The desired attention advertisers want, can have a reversed effect. Attentively watching commercials without multitasking makes you more critical and counter argumentative about the message. The results of these limited studies are striking, as it means that media multitasking can actually be beneficial to advertisers because it reduces resistance against the commercial. Sometimes we need to look beyond science and use our imagination to come closer to the truth. It may seem paradoxical, but even in “science land” things can get hyped up. So maybe media multitasking isn’t so bad after all!