Enormous Changes At The Last Minute

Our media consumption patterns may be known in microscopic detail, yet the motivations behind those patterns are largely assumed. The result of these quite dangerous assumptions: Small, often untraceable shifts can happen in our aggregate media consumption patterns each year that, over time, can subsequently cascade into a major avalanche of change that can seem to come from nowhere.

Why, for example, does someone decide to watch TV for a whole evening rather than curl up by the fire and read a good book? Or for that matter, why would a consumer decide to undertake either of these two pursuits in preference to enjoying a magazine, a radio program, or streaming video? Underlying these questions is the fundamental motivational principle that affects the consumption of all media channels. It underpins the media ecology that helps shape each of our professional lives. Yet we won't find the answer in MRI, Simmons, Nielsen or any other major industry media research source.

How many marketers still didn't know what blogs were three or four years after the term was first used in 1999; or thought Twitter, created in 2006 and now topping 10 billion tweets, wasn't an issue until quite recently; or to this day may never have heard of Gary Vaynerchuk, arguably the Paul Revere of the social marketing revolution.

In their monograph, Media Generations, Professors Block and Shultz of Northwestern University posited the view that our primary media habits are predominantly shaped by the media we experience at an early age. They are encapsulated in the phrase: You are what you grew up with. They expanded on the idea as follows:

... the experiences of childhood, especially in teenage years, impact the shape and course of later life ... That is, the way media and marketing communications are learned during childhood determines the patterns for the rest of one's life, even though new media and technologies appear ... Boomers use the Internet, but they use it differently than do Millennials who grew up with it.

The notion that exposure to a medium at an early age leads to an innate familiarity with that channel makes eminent sense. Yet our implicit literacy of a medium probably stretches beyond our simply being immersed in that channel at an early age. Focusing on the three mass media that have emerged since the middle of the 20th Century - TV, computer and mobile phone - aka the three screens, we can unravel how each screen engages the various functions within our brain.

Neuromarketing proves the three screens of TV, computer and mobile are handled by the brain in quite different ways. Ways that consumers cannot necessarily describe themselves. Our brain's ability to process an experience is far more advanced than our ability to verbalize that experience. Neuromarketing reveals our brain processes an event at 300 to 500 thousandths of second after the experience whereas as our conscious brain, the thinking of which we're all aware, starts to engage at about 500 thousandths of second and beyond.

At a recent Advertising Research Foundation meeting, Dr. A.K. Pradeep of Neurofocus, a leading neuromarketing research agency, isolated the essential differences in how the three types of screens communicate. By scrutinizing consumers' precognitive responses, the responses before conscious thinking fully engages, Dr. Pradeep was able to demonstrate the relative communications strengths of each channel:

  •  TV is superior for emotion and action
  •  Computer online is better for dynamic content and personal or private communications
  •  Mobile is excellent at helping drive memory.


Part of the strength of TV and computer screens is that their larger size helps draw out "human elements and fine details." By contrast, mobile's smaller screen demands an intensity of focus that can result "in a significant boost in memory retention".

But beyond neuromarketing's realm of our precognitive thinking, how do consumers consciously evaluate each of these three screens?

In 2009, UM collaborated with AOL in a joint proprietary study which focused on mobile or smartphone users, "Smartphone, Smart Marketing." Part of this research, conducted by the research organization Questus and based on a sample of 1,800 smartphone users, revealed consumers' perceptions for each of the three screens compared to the other major media channels. We interrogated this data to construct a type of quantitatively accurate perceptual map called a correspondence analysis.

The perceptual map indicates smartphone users clearly cluster all three screens - TVs, computer browsers and smartphones - quite distinctly from the other, more established media. As a group, the three screens range in an attitudinal spectrum from cutting edge and cool to entertaining and exciting for me. Arguably, many observers might intuitively group the online screens of computer browser and mobile screen relatively close together, but television has also succeeded in being viewed as an integral part of the screens' vanguard. TV is clearly seen as both an entertaining and powerful channel.

By contrast, the other three remaining channels - radio, magazines and newspapers - are quite distanced from the screen media. From the smartphone users' perspective, radio and magazines can still offer the distinct advantages of being relaxing, informative and influential. Newspapers are possibly furthest from smartphones, which may, in part, be due to the way in which they deliver information within discrete and relatively slower time intervals. Although newspapers may be growing their online audiences, they have yet to transpose this into solid brand equity for their parent titles.

So if we can largely explain our innate media habits by the phrase You are what you grew up with, why aren't we following this principle more assiduously in our industry media research? Emerging media trends could still be missed in the main studies of MRI or Simmons since they don't track those under 18 years of age. Even the groundbreaking Nielsen-sponsored Video Consumer Mapping Study, which looked at the consumer's use of all three screens in great detail, didn't include teenagers. Target Group Index, the major international multimedia study available in over 60 countries from Kantar, routinely surveys individuals ages 15 and over, and in some countries as young as 12. So why is the United States so slow to embrace teenagers more fully to enhance our understanding of burgeoning multimedia trends?

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2 comments about "Enormous Changes At The Last Minute".
  1. Johanna Skilling from NYU-SCPS , May 12, 2010 at 3:42 p.m.

    Not surprising that the masterful Graeme Hutton has been delving into how our brains connect with our changing media landscape -- and sharing his observations in such a thought-provoking way.

    But I wonder if "You are what you grew up with" becomes less true as our brains remodel to adapt to new information outlets? After all, another thing we are learning more about all the time is the brain's plasticity ... and our ability to continually learn and evolve. Even if we did grow up watching "Leave It to Beaver" on the old family B&W :)

  2. Graeme Hutton from Universal McCann , May 16, 2010 at 11:22 a.m.

    Yes, you raise an excellent point. The brain’s plasticity and ability to adapt over time is only now just being fully realized. Generational constructs which are much more well-established than those pertaining to media, such as the mid-life crisis and the empty nester syndrome, are being shown up for what that really are: somewhat spurious. As 'media' becomes increasingly important to our society in answering informational and entertainment needs, I think generational trends in media may adapt over the long term. Clearly, passive media pursuits such as TV consumption readily lend themselves to adoption by everybody. But more high involvement and active media, such as texting, video games, social media and so forth, are more likely to be initially espoused with those with the available time which tends to be teenagers. Nevertheless as these gain acceptance in society, so their take up expands across early adopters of all age groups