Cognitive disruption can help marketers cut through the clutter

By Jake McKenzie

Our first goal as marketers is to understand how consumers process the world.

Take no notice

People see thousands of ads each day, but the amount of time they spend attending to those ads is remarkably small. It’s estimated that less than 43% of TV ads are viewed, and when they are viewed, they’re typically attended for less than 14 seconds. And for social media ads and banner ads, these numbers get dramatically smaller.

It’s not surprising that we have a difficult time noticing ads—there’s a ton of information the brain has to process each moment. Sure, there’s an interesting ad on TV, but there’s also that notification on your phone, the laundry that needs to come out of the dryer and that music in the background.

It turns out that the brain is pretty selective about how it processes information—we’re equipped with a quick and intuitive processing system that helps us direct attention and make decisions throughout the day, and we’d be overwhelmed with information without this system.

This means that our first goal as marketers is to understand how consumers process the world.

For all the times marketers have talked about being “scroll-stopping” or “breaking through the clutter,” they typically ignore the psychological research about how to get noticed.

The most used (and most well-researched) way to get noticed is through repetition. If your ad shows up often enough, it’ll get noticed, even if it’s just that subtle feeling of familiarity. But for brands that don’t have an unlimited media budget, here are some other ways to get consumers’ attention:

Cognitive disruption

While the brain is scanning information, it is also trying to predict what will happen next. And when things are predictable, we tune them out. This means that brain areas involved in higher executive functions don’t get engaged. When something unexpected or new pops up, a key collection of brain areas get engaged and work together to help process that new information! It’s called “cognitive disruption,” and it’s the reason why the Cadbury ad with the white gorilla exploded in popularity the first few times we saw—it was something our brains didn’t predict would happen.

Matching mood

Matching mood means being aware of what consumers are interested in when they see the advertisement. When we’re engaged and attending to something, we embrace related information and we put up our guard for anything distracting—in other words, the brain is less likely to filter out an advertisement if it’s related to what we’re thinking about. Thus, you are more likely to notice an ad for Chevrolet while watching a Nascar race than an ad for, say, a vacation destination, because the ad better aligns with what you are processing in that moment.


You’ve likely noticed that if you’re at a party and someone across the room says your name, you immediately hear it and can even mentally isolate that conversation. Psychologists call it the “cocktail party effect.” We have a strong preference for not only our name but for things we’re personally attached to—our favorite sports team, celebrity or brands. Ads that use these types of personalization’s can be effective at getting the immediate attention of the viewer, even when there are lots of distractions.


As a result of our long human history as a social species, we tend to prioritize information that is socially relevant. For instance, we notice faces dramatically faster than most other objects, and we can read an incredible amount of information from facial expressions and eye movements. We actually have brain areas that are dedicated to processing human faces, and our hearing is strongly biased toward processing the human voice. When you combine these heuristics with our strong interest in social relationships, we begin to see why celebrities can be one of the most effective creative elements for getting ads noticed. But you don’t have to break the bank with star-studded ads—recurring characters such as Geico’s Gecko and Progressive’s Flo have a similar effect as consumers develop affinity.

You can successfully leverage the above heuristics for your client with a relevant spokesperson and cognitively disruptive creative. The media plan can then place the ads not only in front of the target audience, but also during mood-matched programming such as the Hallmark Channel and upbeat sections of The Weather Channel.

When thinking about using these psychological drivers for better outcomes, make sure to add them to a creative brief before conceptualizing or use them to filter and polish ideas. Marketers spend the majority of their time trying to figure out what to say and why consumers should care about their brand, but the first challenge is simply getting noticed.

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