News & Views

Attention Overestimation Disorder

by Alex Jenkins

Presentations and branded content: the two things you will never hear anyone say they wished would go on longer.

For my job I end up watching a lot of branded content  probably more than most. I've seen branded content from Indian soup brands, Australian noodle manufacturers and Mexican funeral homes.

And, from my experience as a viewer, I'm going to make an assumption about the creation process. I'm going to assume that there's plenty of discussion about ensuring that the brand features in the content and that the content is largely appropriate for the target audience. Being generous, I'm also going to assume that someone, somewhere, believes that the video has a modicum of entertainment value.

But I wonder how many people ask 'how much attention do we truly believe this story deserves?' Or to put it another way, 'for how long should we actually tell this story?’

Let me give you a hint. The answer should not be 'until the budget runs out' but rather 'when the story is told'  and you're allowed to measure that time in seconds. 

Outside of the constraints of 30- or 60-second TV spots, a lot of online branded content makes the mistake of overestimating how much attention people are prepared to give to it and has a tendency to sprawl.

However, it's heartening to see some experimentation happening in this area, giving a little consideration towards what the audience may actually be able to stomach.

For example, the BBC recently launched Instafax: five- to 15-second news clips featuring a few images or short videos overlaid with text and an informative caption delivered via Instagram. Responding to user feedback, the Beeb has already reduced the length of the content even further by now using shortened captions. It's reminiscent of mathematician Norbert Wiener's observation that 'the newspaper business has come to be the art of saying less and less to more and more'.

Taking short-form into the realms of ephemerality, HBO earlier this year launched a Snapchat account to promote the new series of Girls, sharing photos from the red-carpet premiere of the show and emoji from the character Shoshanna.

For broadcasters more used to filling 30- and 60-minute time slots, these are lovely experiment in super short-form content which show an understanding that the headlines and a few fleeting pics are all some people have the attention span for.

But what are we to make of the news that a brand more used to creating two-minute online ads is launching a four-part TV series? Burrito chain Chipotle's 'Farmed and Dangerous'  a tale of unethical farming practices – will premiere on 17th Feb on subscription service Hulu.

Personally, I'm optimistic. The reason this may not fall foul of the 'presentations and branded content' rule is that Chipotle recognises that a mass audience is unlikely to be interested in a show about ethical farming practices. Certainly not one spaced out over a four-part TV series.

By frankly assessing potential attention into the equation, Chipotle has made the wise move of creating a darkly-comic drama about exploding cows and corporate skullduggery – subject matter with which Chipotle believes it can hold viewers' interest for about two hours in total. Time will tell.

Trying to gauge potential attention requires a level of honesty (not one of adland's strengths) about a brand's importance in the lives of its customers and potential customers. Simply put, it's both easy and tempting to over-stay your welcome. So on that note...