University professors find multitasking can be useful

By Manisha Venkat

Whether it’s Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial or Budweiser’s iconic friendship between a puppy and Clydesdale, companies use content within a commercial to evoke everything from laughter to tears. But it is not only the content that changes within the advertising world.

Brittany Duff, assistant professor of Advertising at the University, along with Sela Sar, associate professor of advertising at the University, have found in a recent study published in the Journal of Advertising that even when users multitask on the computer, advertisements may still be successful.

“There are personality predictors (by) using which you can see if people multitask or not,” Duff said. “There were a couple of differences; in the national sample, factors like age affected the level of media multitasking; however, with our students, you don’t see that, because they’re pretty much the same age and are multitasking more than older people. There is also sensation seeking. People who multitask a lot have a need for sensations and are therefore, more attracted to things that provide that. We also found that they tend to be more creative.”

Duff’s research stands out in its approach, because it seeks to measure the effectiveness of advertisements on viewers, who are less attentive to it. This is a contrast to most studies in advertising, which require participants’ undivided attention. The research was conducted both on campus and nationally with a local pool of 56 participants and a national pool of 186 participants. The research process began by segmenting participants into those who multitask regularly and those who don’t.

The advertisement used in the research was British and was pre-tested to be unfamiliar to the participants, according to Duff. Participants were either supposed to watch only the ads or watch them and respond to other tasks at the same time like watching flashing dots and letters.

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Classifying the subjects into analytic and holistic processors, the results determined the impact of an online advertisement. Duff described analytic processors to pay most attention to the focal point and blur out the details. In contrast, holistic processors tend to grasp the entire picture instead of focusing on one specific detail only.

“I am interested, broadly, in consumer attention, and I look at it in a couple of different ways,” Duff said. “I look at it in terms of the ads people tend to ignore, and I also look at ads that don’t receive full attention.”

Most advertisements nowadays are an integral component of other mainstream media like TV or radio, according to Duff, and she advised it would not be useful to blindly tell clients that their target audience is dominantly holistic or analytic. Duff said the subject pools were evenly segmented into analytic and holistic processors. Not one side was imbalanced enough to skew the results. Duff said it is also important to note that people can switch between these two processing methods and aren’t necessarily stuck on one side.

Her study diminishes the fear of multitasking, and the concept of mind-wandering played an integral role, said Duff.

“When people were doing tasks that they were less interested in with low-level additional distractions, they actually retained the work done better later,” she said.

However, Duff also strictly points out that this case may not apply across the board.

“I am not going to make any statements on what a student should or should not be allowed to do (in the classroom). That is completely up to the professor,” she said. “Sometimes when you are forced to listen to something, you will find out later that it is actually interesting and useful.”

In the media industry, it now makes more sense to insert ads that advertisers want the viewer to process holistically, when one is watching a TV show that makes one generally happy. According to Duff, one of the biggest concerns of advertisers too is that their audience might not be paying attention to their work at all. This research explores a lesser known possibility and the findings are in their favor.

“Based on the research I have done, which mostly looks at the upper limit tasks that require a lot of attention, would I say that someone could text and drive at the same time? Never,” Duff said. “Those aren’t things that you should do, because you are actually thinking about your responses to friends. If you need complete attention in doing something, is multitasking going to hurt? Yes. However, I’m interested in that lower limit, that task that you don’t need as much attention for.”

Manisha can be reached at