Multi-Tasking Is Killing Both You and Your Ad Campaign

When Consumers Are Distracted They Don't Get Back on Track

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You're giving a PowerPoint or maybe your spot is finally on TV. Just what brilliant message is your audience soaking up?

"Wow, look at those shoes!" "U want pizza later?" Or even "This is gr8!"

The IMs are flying even as scores are being checked and texting is rampant. But you don't have to worry, right? They're just multi-tasking.

No, says Maggie Jackson, author of the book "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and The Coming Dark Age." Worry. No one is absorbing your work. Multi-tasking is a myth.

If anything, multitasking is really sequential tasking: interrupting one thing to do another. That might not be so bad, except that a third of the time we're interrupted, we never get back on track. Jackson calls this the "culture of lost threads," and it affects the advertising business in three crucial ways.

1) ADVERTISING ITSELF: If consumers are distracted during your pitch, even by something as simple as a split screen, they can't process it well.

Consider that when a crawl is added to the bottom of the news, viewers recall 10% less of what they've just seen.

Moreover, the news that does manage to get absorbed is "flattened," Jackson says. Big stories and crawl drivel are remembered and forgotten in equal measure. By trying to make sense of two stories at once, viewers' news judgment is impaired just as surely as their driving judgment is when they try to steer while dialing the phone. (And, of course, in both situations, they feel perfectly in control.)

Though we are not wired to do two things at once, we truly believe we can. If your ad believes we can too, it won't succeed.

2) THE WORKPLACE: White-collar work has become the cubicle equivalent of Disneyland. There's always something exciting to veer off to. Phone calls! Messages!!

We are interrupted every three minutes at work, according to "Distracted," and each time, it requires an average of 25 minutes to get back on track. Imagine divers constantly resurfacing and then having to dive back in again. That's us, coming up for e-mail.

That's also why it may be time to think about an alternative environment for your employees (or yourself). Companies of the future will probably have silent rooms for uninterrupted thinking, just as some now have no-e-mail Fridays.

It's time to rethink workplace software, too. Right now, it's like a roomful of needy toddlers, constantly interrupting and demanding attention. If you wanted that, you'd work at home! Wise companies are realizing that distraction steals not only time but the concentration required for deep, creative thought. Who can afford to lose that?

3) THE HOME: "We can be in touch with people around the world and yet have trouble sitting down to dinner with people we love," Jackson says.

That one really hit home. Lately I'm finding it harder and harder to stop e-mailing in time to make dinner or even eat it. And it's not just me. Twenty years ago, Americans had an average of three close confidantes. Now they have just two -- and a quarter of us have none.

Friendship takes time, and as we fritter ours away on "reputation management" -- i.e., returning calls and e-mail -- we have less time left for actual relationships.

Maybe that's why so many products today advertise themselves as friendship enablers. Everything from beer to bathroom tile is supposedly for "When friends get together." So, two things:

First, that's a marketing message that is only going to get more potent. Second, don't let it be just a marketing message. Turn off your e-mail. Eat with your family. Drink beer with a friend. And remind me to do it too.
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