Be Very Afraid: AT&T Spot Offers Glimpse of Next-Gen Viewing

Multi-tasking, Second-Screen, Next-Gen Viewing Challenge for

Watching TV while multi-tasking just means you’re really not paying attention

The long-projected demise of TV and the advertising that supports it is something that ought to take years. AT&T demolished it all in 30 seconds.

The tech concern once known as Ma Bell has made hay off a hilarious ad in which a group of wide-eyed moppets sit around a table while asked: “What’s better — doing two things at once, or just one?” Performing tasks simultaneously is “two times as awesome,” one replies. Another cherub proceeds to display his prowess at shaking his head vigorously while waving his hand at the same time.

“I’m getting dizzy,” he warns. And so should everyone else.

For anyone involved in the business of launching television programs or beaming ad messages at the people who watch them, AT&T’s recent effort ought to be considered the Scariest Commercial in the World. How can anyone hope to capture the imagination of the American public going forward if its youngest members are intent on doing multiple and divergent activities in the same nanosecond?

Multitasking has long been a threat to both Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Before mobile tablets and phones and the advent of second-screen activity, couch potatoes had the lure of a snack or the call of the bathroom. The newtech lures are more pernicious, because they ask viewers to stay in front of the screen while tweeting, posting, liking or just toggling their brains from one pastime to the next and back again. A 2012 study conducted by Innerscope Research, a Boston concern that measures physical response to media, found consumers in their 20s switching media venues about 27 times per nonworking hour — the equivalent of more than 13 times during a standard half-hour sitcom.

We see the result of such behavior in the AT&T spot: Consumers who can do many things at once, but none of them well. (The kid oscillating his head could be in danger of coming down with shaken-brain syndrome, and I can only hope his gray matter survived the shoot.)

The ad becomes more frightening when you learn the kids’ utterances are unscripted. The company didn’t want the children talking about the devices shown in the commercials, just gut responses, said Daryl Evans, AT&T’s veep of consumer advertising and marketing communications. Explained Stephen McMennamy, creative director at BBDO Atlanta, the agency behind the spot: “In the structure that we worked with, we just generally let the kids go nuts.”

Other responses not seen in the ads: Punching and kicking at the same time, and eating cake and ice cream simultaneously.

You can argue the dazed boy will mature and find his brain better equipped to stick to a single task done well — though I’d suggest all the new-tech behavior sparked by constant attention to mobile devices will only instill attention-deficit disorder in everyone. A hyper child who would rather wag his noggin and wave his hands haphazardly is the off-the-couch potato of the future whose attention TV networks and marketers will crave so badly, and might not capture at all.

“It’s commonly recognized that we cannot give equal attention to more than one thing at the same time,” acknowledged Mike Bloxham, executive director of New York’s Media Behavior Institute, which tracks media use (and all the switching from one media source to another). Trying to fix the consumer’s gaze in the future will be “a tall order.”

Rather than trying to stem this tide, TV networks and advertisers are encouraging it. When Fox experiments with running ads and backstage footage from “American Idol” at the same moment on the same screen or when NBC or the CW run ads in the bottom or corners of their screens in the middle of scripted fare, the acts reinforce for viewers the notion that very little requires their full attention and many things need just a sliver of it.

Imagine that: Shows and ads that cost millions don’t require the viewer’s full attention? I saw it on TV.

Until TV and its sponsors tell viewers to focus, they deserve a dizzy kid like the one from the AT&T commercial. By the time he grows up, he’ll barely be able to sit still for a promo.

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  1. Steven Brown says:

    I think Brian may be missing the specific point of the spot:

    1. AT&T is highlighting a feature advantage over their rival, Verizon, precisely like Verizon highlights their superior coverage map in their spots.
    2. Multitasking as a “dominant productivity behavior” = bad. This is undisputed. However, AT&T is touting the ability of their subscribers to remain connected on a voice call, while simultaneously looking up map information on their phone.

    Criticizing this capability is like criticizing the ability to jump out of the way of a runaway bus while you’re whistling – you don’t do it all day long, but it’s nice to be able to do it when it counts.

    Think about the “slippery slope of implied marginalization of attention” posited by the author, and everyone’s walking around talking on their phones via headset, playing Angry Birds, and falling lemming-like off cliffs like some zombie apocalypse.

    Also, what @itspaulhancock said.

    Anyway, just some friendly criticism, I enjoy many of your articles.

  2. Stephen Todoro says:

    While it’s an interesting thought, I think this has been going on for a while but is not actually going to take us down the road this article presents as a possibility. I also don’t think this AT&T commercial does any damage whatsoever. In other words, I don’t see this situation as a doomsday for TV as the article would suggest.

  3. People have been doing other things whilst watching TV for a long time. The fact of the matter is, there are different modes of television viewing, depending on what else is going on in their lives and what a specific piece of content does for them. The difference now is that they have other devices around with which to spread their attention and they have more choice to watch what they want when they want…to a point. AT&T would do well to have a look at neuroscience work done by Erik de Plessis on how people actually consume advertising…something that is not necessarily processed at high levels of attention. Another thing we have known for awhile now. The most chilling shift in TV viewing among children is nicely captured by Jason Mittell in “Flow TV” on the role TiVo has played for middle class parenting in America and how the conception of a TV program from being a file on a drive from being part of the ‘flow’ of a schedule. If AT&T think multi-tasking is a threat to their imagined idea of how people watch TV, they should take a look at that.

  4. Peter Fudakowski says:

    If TV content was generally better, more intelligent, you’d get people’s undivided attention. Even children’s attention spans would be extended. Peter

  5. Rebecca Nostrant says:

    Great, interesting and enlightening story. Thanks, Goldie

  6. This is a very insightful article. Entertainment is leading the way to not only its own demise, but the educational demise of our children. The fantasy that is promoted as fact that humans can multitask effectively over a lifetime is creating generations of focuslessness. All research points to television and internet watching being eliminated up to age two and severely limited until past age 10. My pediatrician advised not buying a smart phone or a tablet for my child until he is at least age 12. Too many parents, especially single parents, are using portables as electronic babysitters and raising another generation of antisocial Americans. Five and six year olds playing Mindcraft and having their parents defend it as educational is ridiculous. That ATT commercial shows how television does influence behavior and belief to the detriment of all. My six year old son spends only 20 minutes a day in front of TV and about the same on supervised internet time. He still has his imagination and creativity and interacts well socially, except with the kids in his school who “live” on there tablets. I am a film producer and I speak on how to succeed in the entertainment world, but even I know that corporate TV is undermining the health and welfare of children and their parents when they promote multitasking as normal and preferable. How fast can the mind go until it turns to mush?

  7. They are digging our own graves by catering to this encouragement toward relentless multitasking. A well-told story will rivet the audience. It takes real work, committed art and craft; but, it can be done. For “reality” shows and that ilk; sure, fill the screen with everything. But with a narrative, I’ve seen audiences put down their mobile devices, even in large, group settings and turn toward the stage when they are being presented with a well-crafted experience. Even little kids. People will do that they are trained to do; whether that training is inherent or oblque…

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