Clutter Fighter: Overcoming the "Attention Bottleneck"

Clutter! A word that increasingly strikes fear in the hearts of marketers, brand managers, marketing communicators, graphic designers—virtually anyone responsible for creating and disseminating promotional messages.

“Clutter,” of course, describes the condition of today’s visual and promotional landscape. Unless a consumer lives in a cave somewhere high in the Rockies, he or she is literally bombarded with promotional messages. Depending on the study one reads, the average consumer can be exposed to up to 5,000 promotional messages per day.

How can this be? Let us count the ways!

In addition to advertising in traditional print and electronic media, there are the Internet and social networks, mobile devices, many varieties of out-of-home displays, packaging and P.O.P., pre-movie ads in theatres, matchbook covers, company logoed clothing, car-dealer badging on vehicles, print and digital sign boards, skywriting. And that’s only a partial list.

It doesn’t take long for this plethora of promotional messages to add up. Whether it’s hundreds or thousands of exposures daily, promotional clutter poses a serious problem for those trying to reach a target audience.

But first, what’s the impact of this constant promotional deluge on consumers?

In his book, Strangers to Ourselves, neuroscientist Timothy Wilson writes that the human mind can take in about 11 million pieces of information at any moment. These pieces of information, of course, are not all visual. Obviously, the body has other senses that contribute to this information flood—hearing, taste, touch, smell. He goes on to suggest that the mind, as powerful as it is, can only consciously be aware—and this is a generous estimate—of around 40 of those 11 million impressions.

So, even though consumers may be exposed to thousands of promotional messages in a 24-hour period, they will be able to pay attention only to a handful of them. This is referred to as the “attentional bottleneck” and has led one observer to say that we are living in “the attention economy with attention being a limited resource.” In this context, “attention deficit disorder” has another meaning.

What usually motivates consumers to pay attention to a particular message is its relevance to an existing mind state—such as a conscious interest in, want or need for whatever the message promotes. In other words, the brain—to protect itself from information overload-induced short circuiting—carefully edits incoming data and focuses only on that which is important at a particular time.

The challenge, then, for promotional communicators is to cut through the clutter and attract the attention of those for whom their messages are relevant.

The acronym AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire and Action—a mantra for those who create promotional messages. (Some add an “E” for “Evaluation” to make it AIEDA.) AIDA, which actually was developed in 1898, describes the journey on which a promotional message should take a consumer to get to a sale. While all steps in the process are important, nothing happens unless the message is attended to—unless it is one of those 40 impressions the brain chooses to process, to think about.

Cutting through the clutter—particularly in the case of print media—is primarily the job of the graphic designer. While copy can be critical for developing interest and desire, for evaluating claims and suggesting how to acquire a product, it is layout and illustrations—along with effective headlines—that attract attention. And attention must be gained, studies indicate, in a few seconds.

Clearly, grabbing the attention of a target audience is an increasingly significant challenge for graphic designers.

Enter the science of digital visual evaluation.

Three companies currently offer online scanning tools that help designers predict the visual impact of designs, maximize impact and support creative decisions—quickly, easily and affordably.

3M’s Visual Attention Service ( was first on the market and claims a current customer base of 7,000. Feng-Gui (, an Israeli firm, reports 800 worldwide customers. And EyeQuant ( , based in Germany, reports “hundreds of customers and thousands and ‘freemium’ users.”

These companies’ technologies may be applied to a whole range of visual products including signage, ads, websites, packaging, planograms and others. The systems identify elements in a design most likely to get attention in the first few seconds using algorithms that process such important visual cues as color, edges, faces, shape and contrast. A recent addition to the 3M service is video scanning.

Shortly after a customer scans an image, the three services quickly provide various types of data reported as heat maps, region maps and visual-sequence models.

All claim the data they provide to be at least 90 percent accurate.

According to 3M, its system is based on state-of-the art visual science with accuracy confirmed by extensive eye-tracking studies.

“Generally, we have found that anyone interested in data-driven marketing decisions appreciates VAS,” said Bill Smyth, global business manager, 3M Mpirico Visual Attention Service. “The system enables designers to provide clients with concrete data to support their design decisions—instead of subjectivity.”

Smyth said 3M has had visual scientists in its labs for over 20 years to help develop a variety of products—including the company’s extensive line of retro-reflective films for highway signage, truck and clothing conspicuity. One of these scientists, Dr. Brian Brooks, thought it might be possible to develop a series of algorithms that would provide a quick and easy way to measure visual impact.

Brooks, who has a Ph.D. in Neuro-science and Cognitive Psychology, began developing 3M VAS about six years ago. One of the primary emphases in his field today is the computational modeling of visual systems—the effort to determine why the brain selects some stimuli to attend to and not others.

“The human brain is the most powerful computational and visual recognition system in the world,” he said. “Not even a supercomputer can best the efforts of a two-year-old.”

Brooks had thought to apply his expertise to developing modeling systems for 3M to use internally in its R&D activities. But several marketers got wind of his project and convinced him that there were commercial applications in the field of graphic design.

“There’s a ‘visual attention arms race’ going on out there,” he said. “Companies are spending vast sums of money to communicate with target audiences and we developed VAS to help them succeed.”

One of VAS’s customers is Astral, a $1 billion Canadian media company that, through its Astral Out-of-home Division, owns numerous billboards and is a major competitor with CBS Outdoor.

According to Philippe René, senior research director, 3M VAS has been made part of Astral’s Mark Campaign Optimization Service that offers customers help with demographic and geographic targeting, creativity and distance testing.

“The data allows Astral’s out-of-home advertisers to measure the visual impact of their ads within the first 3-5 seconds of eye contact and make adjustments before they hit the streets. In out-of-home, there’s a high correlation between the visual quality of advertising and recall rates. But even though we had a grid to assess the visual quality of ads, before VAS it was a ‘subjective’ discussion,” René said.

“Customers are able to quantify the attractiveness of their ads—transforming the qualitative discussion into quantitative, actionable results. It’s a great complement to our distance test that allows us to measure the legibility of ads at typical out-of-home distances.”

How is 3M VAS employed? According to René, advertisers contact their Astral Out-of-Home sales representatives to ask for an analysis that is then performed by one of Astral’s creatives.

“So far, clients are really receptive to the service because—even though they expected that some part of an ad would attract attention—they now have a clearer picture with and are able to take creative action that’s data driven. The fact that the predictive accuracy is greater than 90 percent, and that it was developed by 3M, really adds credibility to the service,” René said.