How the cocktail party effect can help brands get noticed

Richard Shotton, Head of Insight at ZenithOptimedia explains Colin Cherry's cocktail party effect which may provides a solution for brands who want to get noticed.

Richard Shotton

We're so inundated with information that we screen most of it out. And that includes ads. However, Colin Cherry's idea of the cocktail party effect provides a solution for brands who want to get noticed.

Friday afternoon. You work in advertising, so you're enjoying a lukewarm pint in your crowded local. Oblivious to the background chatter, you listen to your colleague's latest preposterous anecdote. Then your ears prick up: faintly from across the room, you're sure you heard your name.

Sound familiar? It's an example of what psychologists call the 'cocktail party effect', and it has important marketing implications.

The term was coined by Colin Cherry, a cognitive scientist at Imperial College London, who recognised that social situations provide important insights. He realised that while our conscious minds only register a small proportion of the information around us, we subconsciously process far more.

Why are ads like background pub noise?

We are exposed to so many ads clamouring for our attention, that, like other peoples' pub conversations, we screen most of them out. This process can be demonstrated by a simple experiment - try to recollect the ads you saw yesterday.

One, three, ten? Even the higher number is a meagre proportion of the 1,000 or so you were exposed to.

This widespread screening out means that a brand's biggest task is to be noticed. Luckily, the cocktail party effect demonstrates how.

Make ads relevant.

Localising: a simple route to relevance

There are many ways to boost relevance but perhaps the simplest, and most effective, is localising the message. Research by Zenith quantified the impact of localised ads by surveying 500 nationally representative consumers about a fictitious, new energy tariff. Half the participants were told the tariff offered a £100 saving to the average UK household; the other half were told the same saving applied to households in their city.

When the message was regionally tailored, more than 10% of participants thought the tariff was great value, compared to only 4% for the national message. The tailored ad was more than twice as impactful as the control message - one of the largest boosts to effectiveness we've seen for a minor copy tweak.

The advertising implications

It’s true that some advertisers, like Google, have run high-profile localised, campaigns to great effect. However, these campaigns are rare. There's an opportunity for brands to boost their effectiveness, and distinctiveness, by cheaply localising their digital copy.

And the benefit for marketers? Well, next time you're having a pint, perhaps you can put it on expenses. After all, it's purely for research purposes, isn't it?

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