According to the brilliant psychiatrist, neuroscientist and philosopher, Iain McGilchrist, the type of attention we bring to bear on the world is rooted in the preferences of the two hemispheres of the brain. The right hemisphere brings a kind of ‘broad-beam’ attention to bear on the world – it presents the world to us, it sees the whole, everything in context.

The right hemisphere is largely responsible for alertness and sustained attention – and for vigilance for anything ‘at the edge of our awareness’ – anything slightly off-stage. It is open to novelty, ambiguity, and contradiction, and grounds us in the world.

The right hemisphere is also better connected to the limbic system that helps us to experience emotion and more associated with memory for events, places, and people. Anything of interest it passes to the left hemisphere for ‘narrow-beam’ attention to be brought to bear – to break things down into smaller parts, look at the detail, close-up, to flatten, categorise and manipulate what we see. In the hierarchy of attention, broad-beam attention nearly always comes first – we see the wood before we see the trees.

These two types of attention alter how we see the world. They also have implications for the type of advertising that we make, its ability to capture an audience’s attention and the types of business effect we can expect to see as a result. My research on advertising styles in Lemon and Look out (IPA, 2019 and 2021), suggests that our attention has narrowed in the last 15 years and that habits of thinking have emerged that are more consistent with the preferences of the left-hemisphere. This might account in part for a decline in advertising effectiveness and no doubt explains other changes in culture too.

Advertising today is increasingly conceived for narrow-beam attention – close-ups of the product and its features, words on the screen, rhythmic soundtracks, short-sharp cuts that replace narrative played out in lived time. The direct and transactional have won out over characters, music and humour.

This ‘narrow-beam’ advertising tends to assume on behalf of the audience an inherent interest in the brand and has become more widespread in an era of targeting. It might work when it is placed in front of those in the buying window for the product, by nudging immediate prospects towards a website, a download, or a purchase, but when it comes to creating lasting salience for your brand – or even capturing attention – this ‘narrow-beam’ advertising falls short.

Establishing and maintaining your brand in the minds of the public requires something different – advertising for ‘broad-beam’ attention, or what might be described as brand-building advertising. This kind of advertising needs to put on a show, to entertain. Its purpose is to capture the broad-beam attention of those people who might not know they are interested in the brand yet; it needs to make the brand as interesting and memorable as possible. It places the brand in the viewer’s long-term memory for such a time as they might need it, raising its salience above all others in the category, establishing it as the brand in the category, so that people type the brand into their search engine rather than perform a generic category search.

This type of advertising also requires different measures in its development – principally emotion, which orientates our attention, puts things into long-term memory and helps us to decide quickly between options in the future, and salience.

So, which of these kinds of advertising do we need to be making more of in a technologically disrupted, post-pandemic world? Well, we need them both, but as companies move to establish themselves online, they can forfeit their physical availability, which means they may also struggle to establish or maintain mental availability, rendering one kind of advertising more important, not less: brand building advertising.

That means advertising with an appreciation of human uniqueness, human betweenness and human movement, advertising with character, incident and place, advertising with humour, music, and warmth and vividness of colour. The kind of advertising for lasting business effects that will elevate culture rather than brutalise it. The kind of advertising too, I suspect, that will have attracted many to work in the industry in the first place.  

Orlando Wood is Chief Innovation Officer at System1 Group, Honorary Fellow of the IPA and author of Lemon and Look out (IPA, 2019 and 2021). System1 monitors advertising for effectiveness and helps advertisers and agencies in the development of their advertising with its TestYourAd service. He is speaking at ATTENTION@MAD//Fest on 6 July. Click here to get your early bird ticket.