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

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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