Is the human brain less apt to retain advertising messages today, than it was 20 years ago?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. You know, most people think our job can be boiled down to the phrase “make cool stuff” and sure, we do that and we do it well. But let’s break it down even further. Isn’t it really our job to make cool stuff…that people will remember? A few years back, in an article on AdAge, Jeff Goodby recalls the Taxi Cab Test saying,

“The TCT was a way I used to measure whether something in advertising had really gotten into popular culture. When I told a cab driver I was in advertising, he or she would usually ask what campaigns I worked on. It felt good when they knew two or three of them. This almost never happens to advertising people now. Our things usually don’t rate this kind of popular familiarity. To test this, I assaulted a very hip young San Francisco cab driver with a list of the Cannes gold Lion winners from last year. He was only familiar with one of them (the Heineken TV campaign).”

People walk through New York's Time Square surrounded by a myriad of bright, colorful ads.

If no one remembers the work, is it still good?

Has our creativity waned or has the human brain changed the game without telling us?

I agree with Jeff on all fronts. In talking with a colleague, the traditional notion that our brains are memory devices was challenged when he asserted that “our brains are actually tools of deletion.” Upon further discussion, I agreed. His stance was that with such an inordinate amount of data flowing in through our 5 senses (6 for some) every second of every day, our brains have to instantly decide whether information is necessary for storage (immediate, short-term, long-term, etc.) or unnecessary. Sure, we have the capacity to store a ton of data – Scientific American points out that when neuron multiplication is factored in we’ve each got about 2.5 petabytes of space, enough to hold roughly 3 million hours of TV shows. So where’s the disconnect?

I’m no brain scientist, so I can’t turn this into an exposé on the ins and outs of the brain. I can say that it stands to reason that with so many channels for entertainment, (there are 4.05 billion indexed web pages on the internet, my DirecTV subscription offers me over 285 channels, not to mention radio/print/OOH and word of mouth) information is bombarding every second of our day. Our brains are more geared to make deletion decisions on the fly for any given scenario than they are tooled to remember the cornucopia of stimuli we take in.

Jeff’s thoughts on the Taxi Cab Test are sad but true. The days of Got Milk?Where’s the beef? and ¡Yo Quiero Taco Bell!, along with so many other recognizable and memorable campaigns are coming to an end. It’s not for lack of amazing ideas, just a product of the nation’s waning attention span.

So what IS working?

I believe a prime example of a campaign that hits on all cylinders, is EXTREMELY memorable and actually worked to refresh a tired brand with new fans and customers is the Old Spice campaign, featuring our friend, Isaiah Mustafa. Sure, it’s a few years old now, but I guarantee if you hit someone with a “Hello ladies…” in his tone, they’ll recall it instantly.

Why does it work?

W+K got in the mind of the consumer, deciding to sell men’s grooming products to the people that actually buy them: women. Shocking! Next they developed a “Big Idea” that had legs beyond a single medium or ad. A “Sustainable Big Idea,” that, when coupled with the voice of an angel and chiseled abs of a Roman god, led to a campaign that was viable in TV, print, radio, OOH and via those incredible YouTube responses. So is that success all attributed to the agency? I’d say half goes to the agency and half to the client for allowing the agency to be innovative and put out work that would grab our collective attention, entertain us and make us say, “thank you sir, may I have another?!”

The fix? Better client education + “Sustainable Big Ideas” + 100 proof grain alcohol = You’ve got a chance.

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