Paying Attention to Our Attention to Ads

by Tasmin Pesso, PCI Certified Parent Coach®

One day, I decided to try an experiment. I would give no attention to advertising, at all. I would still shop for products and services as I needed them. But I just didn't want to know about, or give any kind of consideration to, products or services until I was in shopping mode. Advertisers, it seems, want me to be shopping, or more specifically, giving attention to their products even while I am doing other things such as reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, or driving down the freeway.

The first thing I noticed was it took lot of effort to not give attention to ads. I recalled the old challenge, do not think of a pink elephant. What ever you do, do not think of a pink elephant. I also noticed that there is a difference between ignoring and giving no attention. When I ignored the product ad, I still had awareness of what was being ignored. However, if I were successful in paying no attention, I would have no awareness of the ad's product.

It was an interesting experiment that I continue to practice today because I started feeling more peaceful. I realized that all those advertising messages, while drawing on my attention, also drew on my energy. I regarded the ad as a young, relentlessly impatient, interrupting child who wouldn't wait for her turn. Look at this. Do you want this? Listen to me. Play with me. In the middle of a newscast, she interrupts. Driving safely down the road, conversing with a passenger, she makes her appeal from a huge billboard. Reading a printed article as it continues to the next page, there she is with a change of topic. Her uninvited interruptions are a relentless and exhausting assault on attention. Phew!

Try it out for yourself. Pay no attention to ads. While you are reading the paper or a magazine, fold as necessary and gaze only at the articles. Use paper or scroll as needed to cover parts of the computer screen. When driving, keep your gaze away from billboards, and turn the radio off during the ad breaks. If you are lucky and have a DVR like TiVo, fast forward through all the commercials. If not, tape your show and watch a little later, or guess the length of the break and turn off the TV for a few minutes. At the end of your advertising vacation, you will have lots of ideas about how much advertising you want you and your family to pay attention to.

The more I paid attention to my attention, the more I became aware of our brains' attention systems. Our brains have more than one mode of attention functioning simultaneously. They are popularly referred to as the autopilot and the executive brain.

Our autopilots are always scanning and noticing. That's the whole point of autopilots! They run without constant direct supervision, are very energy efficient, helping to keep the load light for the executive brain. That awareness I still had of ads while ignoring them was the autopilot busy still noticing. Autopilots are also our habit maintenance systems, another way to help keep the load light for the executive brain. Repetition acts upon our autopilots and is a system for building habits. Repetitions of certain products may not always result in consumption habits, but it is sure to create familiarity and association of ad imagery to product. Our executive brains run the fully conscious, deliberate and higher order, thinking part of our attention. When we deliberately stop to consider an ad, our executive brains have an opportunity to have input on the manner in which the ad will be assimilated. However the great majority of ads we are exposed to seem to be relegated to an autopilot function.

Which lead me to a bigger concern, what are children's brains doing with all this attention grabbing activity? As any parent knows, childhood is a time of developing skills. Self-control and attention management require lots and lots of practice. We provide sheltered and developmentally appropriate settings for social, academic, and athletic skills. Advertising is an attractive, sophisticated, persuasive pursuit of attention that is challenging even for adult brains. Young children regard ads as sources of information and even entertainment. They have immature executive brains with little or no capacity to understand and manage persuasion. This leaves the task of processing ads to their equally immature autopilots! True self-awareness and capacity to think about one's own thinking doesn't even begin until adolescence. The consequence is that the impact of advertising is far greater on our children's minds than on our own.

There is no benefit from our children's attention being repeatedly solicited by advertisers. We would never allow a toy a manufacturer to walk right into our homes, cozy up to our children, and try to entice them to beg us for new toys. We protect our children from unwelcome encounters with strangers, yet we've unwittingly been allowing just that to happen through mass media. The challenge before is that most of our entertainment and even many sources of information are embedded with these uninvited messages. Let's start by paying attention to and valuing our attention.

In closing. As you pay attention to your attention, here are a few questions to consider:

Last, and most importantly, how much is your, and your children's attention worth?

Tasmin Pesso resides in the Bay Area. She is the mother of two and in addition to coaching parents, she writes and speaks about media-related issues. You can contact Tasmin at