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Multitasking, Distraction & Consumer Behavior

Daniel Zane investigates what happens to consumers when they are distracted by a background ad while multitasking.

Story by

Emily Collins

Photography by

Illustration by Neha Kavan

In today’s technology-driven world, people are prone to multitasking. According to a 2015 survey by Accenture, even when simply watching television, 87% of people are using other devices at the same time. One way businesses compete for consumer attention is through background ads—such as those that appear on the sides of web pages—and consumers come across thousands of these ads every day while watching TV, checking social media and browsing the internet. What happens when a consumer completing a focal task is distracted by one of the background ads they encounter? 

For starters, background ads can have a positive impact. Daniel Zane, assistant professor of marketing, found that distracting background ads can lead consumers to hold more favorable brand evaluations, resulting in increased brand interest, higher ratings of the brand’s attributes, and a more positive attitude toward the brand. 

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“We know that when people multitask, their attention shifts back and forth between the multiple things going on. And interestingly, past research in psychology shows that while people think they are quite good at multitasking, on average, we are actually pretty bad at it,” explains Zane. “We believed that when consumers find themselves unexpectedly distracted by background ads, which is bound to happen, this might be a noteworthy experience that they look to explain.”

Through a series of manipulated experiments, Zane and his colleagues, Robert W. Smith of Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Rebecca Walker Reczek of The Ohio State University, were able to test how distracted participants perceived themselves to be by a background ad. The experiments had consumers engage in a focal task, such as browsing the internet, while simulating a radio listening experience to present background ads in a realistic way. In one manipulation, the researchers set expectations about how distracting the ads would be before participants listened. In the second, they told participants that they were more or less distracted than others after they heard the ad. 

“The content of the ad was held totally constant, so consumers are drawing these conclusions about the brands solely based on their mental experience of being distracted or not and regardless of the content of the ad,” explained Zane. 

The study, "The Meaning of Distraction: How Metacognitive Inferences from Distraction during Multitasking Affect Brand Evaluations" appears in the Journal of Consumer Research, and reports the team’s finding that participants who perceived themselves to be highly distracted by the background ad reported greater interest in the advertised brand and they were likely to engage with that brand on social media. 

This research is the first to focus on multitasking in the customer domain with an emphasis on advertising. Both marketers and consumers can benefit from this research, as the results shed light onto how marketers can capture the interest of consumers and how consumers can better understand the mental process driving their interest and purchasing decisions. 

“The good news for marketers is that in a world where their advertisements are bound to be in the background at times, all is not lost,” said Zane. “Consumers can still positively react to a brand solely based on their internal experience of noticing that their attention keeps shifting away from whatever they are focused on and toward the ad.”

Zane warns that the takeaway for marketers isn’t as simple as making ads as distracting as possible. There are limitations. 

For consumers, being distracted by an ad might result in a favorable brand evaluation, but they should remember that just because they are distracted does not mean they are truly interested and should buy the product, he adds. 

“What if you are distracted by the ad simply because multitasking is nearly impossible or because it’s late at night after a long day of work and you simply can’t keep your attention in one place? In our society where we all constantly multitask, it’s worth it to reflect on these sorts of questions in order to make sure our opinions of brands and consumption choices are authentic,” says Zane. 

Daniel Zane studies consumer behavior and his research interests include inference making, self-perceptions, and ethical decision making. He received his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University and previously worked as a marketing analyst for Harte-Hanks.   

Story by

Emily Collins

Photography by

Illustration by Neha Kavan

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