The Product Person 🛠️ - Issue #2

Summary: Harvard Working Paper on Consumer Attention (23-pages)

Hey Product People 🛠️ Today’s summary is of a 23-page Harvard Working Paper titled “The Rising Cost of Consumer Attention: Why You Should Care, and What You Can Do About It” by Thales S. Teixeira. In it, Thales details how consumers are paying less attention to ads according to past data and studies that he’s performed. He then goes on to outline a few tactics that marketers can use to capture elusive attention or make the most of the attention they already receive. Let’s get to the summary…

How To Get Attention To Your Product In The Cheapest Way Possible

Why you should care about what the consumer wants

I’m about to say some very basic conceptual stuff that you should probably know by now. People won’t buy what you’re selling if they don’t know it exists. See, basic. You have to be able to capture attention and redirect it to what you want to sell. Without at least some attention from your end consumer, then your marketing effort will be for naught.

For a long time, marketers have been following 2 questions when it comes to promoting a product:

  1. How to capture attention?

  2. How to convert that attention into behavior towards a product/brand?

However, many marketers start this process assuming that attention is a given. That they’ve earned the consumer’s attention just by existing as a brand for the consumer to buy. Wrong. Very Wrong.

Here’s another basic concept, disregarding what pique’s a particular consumer’s interest in the process of trying to gain their attention will cause them to neglect you as a brand. The longer it takes for you and your marketing team to realize this, the longer you’ll be shoveling ad money into a furnace (That money would probably be put to better use in that furnace anyway).

But to finish off the point, yes, Garyvee is right. First, you must empathize with your audience/the consumer and focus on what they believe to be important. Only after that, should you focus on your own selfish, persuasion-related goals.

To put it simply, the more you care about the end consumer the less money you’ll spend on selling to them.

Caring about the consumer’s interests == Spending less $$ to get their attention

Attention always comes at a price

Two ways to capture attention in advertising:

  1. Paying for it

    • Paying media & social media companies to get a TV spot, newspaper or magazine page, spot on the newsfeed, etc. (The costs are relative to audience sizes and are referred to as CPMs—cost-per-thousand-impressions; CPMs just means “cost”.)

  2. Earn it (Indirectly pay for it)

    • Creating compelling enough content that people seek out your brand organically through Google, YouTube, or social media. Content can cost tons of $$$ to create and distribute.

Why costs are increasing while attention is decreasing

Here are 3 results from studies done with TV ads that should help you understand why this is happening:

  1. From 1966 to 1998, inflation of the US Dollar and CPMs for a primetime TV ad and a Super Bowl ad were around the same values. In 2010, Super Bowl and primetime TV ad costs had skyrocketed 6x and 5x, respectively, since its 1966 prices. All while inflation has only grown 3x.

  2. In 2013, the average American was exposed to roughly 52,000 TV commercials.

  3. From 1988 to 2012, there’s been a consistent downtrend in the % of people that paid attention to ads. “Not paying attention” means changing channels with a remote, skipping with a DVR, or mentally tuning out by focusing on something else. The percentage of people that viewed ads completely was at 97% in the early 1990s. That percentage is now less than 20% in 2012.

Attention has 2 dimensions: intensity (quality) and duration (quantity). So far, we know that the quality of attention is decreasing while prices are rising. A knee jerk reaction to this trend is that marketers seek to increase their ad spend as prices rise to counteract the drop in quality. I’ve decided to term this as “The Marketer’s Dilemma”.

The Marketer’s Dilemma is basically that the number of marketers buying ads and the number of ads being created are increasing much faster than the amount of attention available to capture. More ads mean more things shouting at consumers to buy. This leads to consumers paying less attention to ads. This decline of attention quality causes marketers to up their ad spend to grab more attention. Then ad costs swell as demand skyrockets in comparison to the fixed amount of attention available.

Why attention is decreasing

Ad content serves 2 purposes to consumers: information & entertainment. And today all the information you can ever need is easily accessible on the internet. A brand’s website serves all the informational value that a consumer needs on a brand.

Meaning, a consumer would rather Google “Ford latest cars” than watch a 30-second ad spot by Ford detailing specific upgrades in their new models of cars. So these days, brands are more inclined to provide entertainment in their ad content.

What companies have been doing about the rising costs

There are 2 general tactics that companies have been using to counteract the drop in attention quality:

  1. Increasing the amount of entertainment in their ads

  2. Offering consumer promotions


A quick study of 60 TV ads from the 1950s to the 2000s found that the amount of time that brands spend on the entertainment value in the ads has more than triples from 13% to 40%.


These usually take the form of coupons, daily deals, rebates, and short-term price discounts. Consumers may hate ads but they still love a good deal.

In 2000, American companies spent an equal $300 billion on advertising and promotions. In 2013, promotion spending ($630 billion) is now 2.5x larger than advertising spending ($260 billion). Largely thanks to online daily deal sites like Groupon.

While offering consumer promotions does have a positive effect on short-term sales, it does not carry over into future sales and generally does not create a great perception by consumers of your brand. People stop buying once the sale stops. 

Thales’ proposed solution: The Attention-Contingent Advertising Strategy (ACAS)

ACAS involves 4 steps:

  1. Define the purpose of your marketing communication to determine the quality of attention that you need. (Necessary attention)

  2. With the help of people that control the channels, you want to market in (TV networks, magazine companies, etc), determine the available quality of attention of your target audience in those channels. (Available attention).

  3. Choose the appropriate advertising strategy to match the quality of attention available. (The contingency).

  4. Create the ad content. But before creating the ad, the quality of attention needs to be determined.

There are 4 levels of quality when it comes to attention and for each level, there’s a strategy to go about obtaining it.

  1. Full, undivided attention

    • What to do: Focus on persuasion.

    • Traditional ads that focus on imagery work here.

  2. Partial, divided attention to a main screen (Ex. Person not paying attention to the game on TV because they are multitasking )

    • What to do: Don’t lose attention.

    • Ads should be focused on triggering immediate actions and emotions.

  3. Partial divided attention to a secondary screen (Ex. Person scrolling through Instagram while watching the game on TV)

    • What to do: Win the competition for attention.

    • Entertainment works here. But not too much as to dilute the persuasion.

  4. Near to complete lack of attention

    • What to do: Grab the attention of the small subset of consumers that are paying attention and then get to other via viral sharing.

Thales explains how to deal with the 4 levels of attention quality. He suggests 3 options:

  1. Lean Advertising

  2. Creating ads to work under low levels of attention

  3. Developing ads that increase the level of attention

Lean Advertising (Buying cheaper attention)

Lean advertising is rapidly building a brand on a limited budget. An ad campaign involves two tasks: content creation and distribution. And with lean advertising, your efforts are quick & low-cost, but not low-value.

Companies can have successful campaigns for 10% or even 1% of what they would’ve spent using traditional ad agencies. If you’ve ever consumed Gary Vaynerchuk’s content, it’s pretty much the essence of lean advertising. You can do this by:

  • Creating content yourself

  • Outsourcing content creation

  • Distributing content yourself

  • Outsourcing content distribution

Creating ads to work under low levels of attention

Contrary to belief, people still watch TV. However, they aren’t as attentive. As much as 40% of the time watching TV is spent also multitasking on other media devices. This presents a new opportunity for marketers: ads can be used to redirect people from what they’re watching to other platforms like a company’s website or to make an online purchase.

Thales performed a study to put this to the test. He built a dataset of 1400 unique ads of 22 brands that aired more than 374k times on various programs and TV channels during 2010, the year tablet sales skyrocketed. And to measure the effect of TV ads on online behavior immediately after an ad was aired, he matched TV advertising data with website visits and online purchases of 100,000 participants on a second-by-second basis.


  • Ads focused on strong visual imagery are the least effective in terms of driving online purchases.

  • The best ads are action-focused ads. (CTAs work!) Ads that urge people to go online, vs ones that don’t, actually accomplish this to a great extent.

  • No single ad can accomplish both tasks of increasing the number of visitations to the website and the number of purchases.

  • Product-focused ads and emotion-focused ads increase online purchases but result in fewer total visits to the website. Emotion is slightly more effective.

  • A focus on product or brand can be persuasive when consumers eventually decide to shop, but it does not motivate multitaskers to act/shop impulsively.

  • If marketing to a multitasking audience, don’t use imagery focused ads.

  • Action-focused ads work regardless of industry.

  • Lower attention isn’t necessarily bad as long as the right ad content gets to the right audience and you’re able to redirect attention where you want to redirect it to. Whether that be other content or an online purchase.

Developing ads that increase the level of attention

As a marketer, you need to stretch the current attention that you receive to create virality and increase attention.

In a study of 82 ads for beverage, confectionary, and alcohol brands. Thales tests whether someone fully watches an ad based on if they are “entertained”. In the test, Thames records the viewers’ reactions to the entertainment and uses face-tracking technology to detect grins, smiles, and laughter.


  • As you might assume, the more a viewer was entertained the more they were likely to watch an ad until the end.

  • A more interesting find, the more they were entertained, the higher their intent to purchase the product but only up to a certain point, after which more entertainment led to fewer purchases.

Using entertainment to create more engaging TV ads always helps to attract attention but deters persuasion after some point. The attention to the entertainment competes with the attention to the brand message.

Thales also conducts a similar study to understand why content gets shared and why certain ones go viral. Similar to the previously mentioned study, Thales shows a sample of ads to consumers and used face-tracking to read the reactions to humor by tracking expressions of joy and surprise. There was also a personality questionnaire taken before the ads. For each ad, they were allowed to view or skip it, and if they viewed, they could share the ad with a few (termed selective sharing) or multiple (termed broad sharing) acquaintances.


  • Unsurprisingly, ads with a known brand are more like to be viewed.

  • Ads with an unfamiliar brand are just as likely as a familiar one to be shared if it gets viewed.

  • Feelings of joy & surprise are important to explain why people view as well as share.

  • Personality has a strong influence on sharing, especially broad sharing. Extroverted and self-directed (people focused on themselves as opposed to others) are more likely to broadly share ads.

  • The ads most shared had a special characteristic: they used content that enabled the self-interested person to benefit personally and gain some element of social capital from the act of sharing in 4 ways:

    • To communicate their values to others.

    • Create a tribal community on an inside joke.

    • To be seen as someone with privileged access to good content.

    • Even to show that they were the center of attention.

If you want to create virality, always ask, “what can the end consumer/my audience/someone achieve if they share the advertisement?”

Thales terms the process of creating content that allows for the mutual benefit of both consumer and the advertiser as “advertiser symbiosis”.

In advertiser symbiosis, the marketer has to understand the consumer’s needs and create content that allows the consumer to benefit personally. But remember, brands must remain self-interested by making sure they achieve their goals of persuasion or else they risk providing free entertainment for audiences that will never consider their products.

📝 You can read the full working paper here.

🖇️ Also, here are 2 more great articles related to consumer psychology that I’ve found that are very straightforward and don’t really need summarizing:

Thanks so much for reading issue #2 of The Product Person 🛠️ I just created a Twitter account for The Product Person where I’ll share key quotes and snippets from each week’s newsletter. Be sure to follow so I can invade your twitter feed.

Be sure to share this summary & “@” Thales Teixeira on Twitter for me (@ThalesHBS) & tell him that he made it onto this issue 😉.


Also, don’t forget “@ me” on Twitter @antdke or email me at if you have any feedback on today’s issue. I ❤️ hearing feedback (good or bad).

Have a happy friday & a fantastic weekend :)