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Information overload in the era of mass media

In this current digital age, we have all been subject to a massive information overload. This has a profound influence on our purchasing behavior and for many consumers can make the process much harder than it should be. It is mostly the mass media that is to blame for this. Television provides us with countless documentaries and news programs, as well as a seemingly infinite number of commercials. The internet also overwhelms users on a daily basis with unlimited offers and emails containing adverts. On top of this, globalization has meant that the market has arguably become saturated with the number of products available. You can see examples of this every time you walk into a store and see the choice available for so many products, i.e. fifty different types of garbage bags. How should a consumer come to decision if there is such a large choice available for even the most basic everyday product, as well as so much accompanying information to every product? 

Consumers quickly feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of information. This then leads to a so-called ‘information overload.’ But what exactly is an information overload and how can marketers react to this phenomenon?

Information overload: a definition

The term ‘information overload’ refers to an excess of information that a person is confronted by. Above all, two factors can be seen as the cause for the current excess of information. These are the massive increase in the information on offer as well as the use of vast amounts of information at such a fast pace. However, it is not just in the typical advertising channels where consumers are confronted with so much product information, there are also large amounts that come from the likes of advertising leaflets distributed in shopping malls, flyers posted in letter boxes, or even the wide selection of products on display in every store. If it’s the case, as with most consumers, you are also a smartphone user who is active online, you will also be bombarded by notifications from various apps. It is this outright explosion of data that is the cause of the information overload.

How does the information overload influence buying behavior?

Information overloads lead to a situation where, due to an excess of information, a person is no longer in a position to make a well-reasoned purchase decision. In this case, it is the amount of information that is the decisive factor. In the mid-1970s it was discovered that an increase in the amount of information improved the quality of the decision; however, if a specific amount of information was exceeded, then this process will reverse. This shows that there is a natural limit for the human brain in regards to input.

An overload of information can also be expressed in percentages. For example, if you flick through a magazine and read 10 out of say, 100 pages, then you are only taking in a maximum of 10 percent of the total information. The rest, i.e. the excess information, adds up to 90 percent.

What is the effect of an information overload?

An information overload can put a serious strain on the human brain. In 2016 it was calculated that a person alive at this moment in time will receive more information in a single day than one living in 1900 would have received in an entire lifetime; approximately the equivalent of 174 issues of the New York Times (Sunday edition). The brain must then process and categorize this information, a lot of it irrelevant, in a very short amount of time. This then has a negative impact on concentration. The exertion caused by the processing of information can lead to issues like tiredness and forgetfulness, and possibly even burnout; something which has become more and more widespread.

For this reason, psychologists and medical experts warn against the effects of ever increasing information overload. It has been known to lead to an increase in everyday stress, and even things like severe migraines or even mental health issues.

If consumers find themselves besieged by too much information, particularly from the mass media, then the brain may begin to seal itself off to protect itself against such a barrage of environmental stimuli. The larger the information overload, the worse the quality of the decision-making process becomes. The excess of information means that the consumer can no longer make an informed decision about whether they should buy a product or not. The result is the customer having a sort of blunted awareness – they unconsciously block out advertising-related information as they almost always have no use for it. A good example of this is the so-called banner blindness. This means that for marketers it is a significant challenge to break through this barrier with their advertising messages.

The evolution of the information on offer: from printing press to the digital media age

Mass media’s foundation was the printing press. It became possible to reproduce content quickly for the first time and distribute it across the country. The first printing press was developed by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, however, at this point, we are not yet speaking about a mass media. This term only really took its modern form in the 20th century, when newspapers began to be mass produced and reach hundreds of thousands of readers. Radio and later television would make it possible to have an audience of millions.

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As a point of comparison: Gutenberg printed less than 200 copies of his bible. In 2013 (the latest year available) there were 304,912 new titles and re-editions published in the US – many of which would reach sales figures of at least three figures. Bestsellers reached sales figures of six or seven figures.

It didn’t take long for the newspaper to become the most important medium when it came to the distribution of information. At the start, the few newspapers there were could only publish a few thousand copies.  These days, successful newspapers are published by the millions and sold around the world. These kinds of increases can also be seen in other forms of media. In 1906 the first ever radio program was broadcast in the US. In the 1920s the television was invented but this would have to wait until after the Second World War to establish itself as a mass medium. The arrival of the internet in the 1990s would then signal the beginning of the digital media era.

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Above all, it is the internet that is bringing about an excess of information. It is estimated that in 2017 the average amount of emails sent every day will be 269 billion. Around half of these emails can be classified as spam, i.e. mail that the recipient would wish rather not to have received.

The modern information society

The amount of information being distributed is growing and growing – and so too is the information overload. The various media branches are constantly expanding, leading to new extremes. Nowadays there are more newspaper publications, TV channels, radio programs, and websites than ever before. This has led to the problem of there being more media and information on offer is increasing so much faster than the demand for it is.

Information overload – a problem for marketers?

The ever growing information overload emanating from the mass media is, above all, a problem for marketers. They are spending more and more time and money to make sure that their product’s advertising message stands out in the ever growing information pool. This has led to increased competition among companies. They are now using any means possible to capture the attention of potential consumers. However, this is something that is becoming more difficult all the time due to the growing wealth of information. The amount of data involved in the information overload is growing all the time. Given that a person can only process a limited amount of information, consumers are blocking out more and more of the information.

The limited capacity of the human brain

Everyday a person attempts to take in and process vast amounts of information. But of course not all of this information is stored long term in that person’s memory. The capacity of the human brain is limited, which leads to an increased overload of information. It eventually causes a complete freeze in information being consumed. Furthermore, there is so much information that will go over many of the target audience’s heads and never has a chance to be taken in. The brain acts as a sort of filter system – only relevant information remains in a person’s memory.

The multi-store model of memory

Perceived information can go through three stations: sensory memory (ultra-short memory), short-term memory (working memory), and finally, long-term memory. It is in the long-term memory that the information path comes to an end, insofar that the affected person blocks out or forgets because of its lack of importance.

Put simply, the storage system works as a three step model. Once the information has reached the threshold of the first step, it then moves onto the next one. The information is processed further and, depending on how relevant it is, may end up in the long-term memory. Above all, it is highly emotional memories that will be highly relevant to people and remain in their memory over a long period of time. For this reason, marketers try to create content that is highly emotional in order to convince consumers to buy their products.

The individual steps of the multi-store model differentiate themselves in the length of time that they are stored. While the sensory memory stores information for only milliseconds, the long term memory can store information for years, and even decades. Therefore, it is the aim of marketers to get their product information into the long-term memory of their customers.

Sensory memory

Sensory memory is the first filter point for all information consumed, hence why it has the name that it does. This is where all information is filtered and subconsciously stored in a temporary fashion. This ultra-short memory can take in a huge amount of information but at the same time only offers a very short period of time for this information to be stored. Information in the sensory memory is only kept for a period of somewhere between milliseconds and seconds. If the information is then deemed to be relevant, then it moves onto the next stage. All other information is filtered out.

Short-term memory

Short-term memory, sometimes also referred to as ‘working memory’ is the second filter station. This is where the information is processed consciously. Here, the storage of information lasts somewhere between 20 and 45 seconds. During this time the relevance of the information on hand is actively and consciously determined. If for example, the information is not very important, then the relevance will be deemed to not be very high, this will almost immediately lead to it being deleted (this is why it is much more likely that you will remember the birthday of a love interest than that of a casual acquaintance). If the information is deemed to be important but not yet in the long term memory, then it will be forwarded directly to the short term memory. More complex information, as well as some motor skills like swimming and cycling, are examples of activities that need to be repeated multiple times before they are able to remain in the memory long term.

Long-term memory

The long-term memory is the last stop in the multi-storage model. The information is stored over a long period of time – at least for several years, if not for a whole life time. Here, the defining criterion is relevance. The information that is deemed to be important creates a knowledge-network of experiences and impressions. The complex data set that is long-term memory can be extended and enlarged indefinitely. A person can call on these memories both consciously and subconsciously. Opinions are divided as to whether the information is actually deleted from memory. The majority of scientists and experts nowadays agree that forgetting is the unavailability, i.e. the deactivation of data.

If information is stored permanently, marketers will try their very best to get their product information into the long term memory of their customers. With highly emotional and striking methods of advertising, the product aims to cement a place in the minds of customers. To get into people’s long-term memory, advertising messages need to make it past the preceding levels of memory.

Challenge No. 1: Overcoming the perception threshold

The first hurdle that marketers need to overcome is getting product information through a person’s so-called ‘perception threshold’. At the end of the day, it’s only logical that a product that isn’t noticed will not be bought. The perception process works in the following way: people take in stimuli from the environment around them via their sensory organs. In order for this to be translated into relevant information in the brain, they ideally need to trigger a feeling or sensation. It’s only after a certain critical mass of the feeling or sensation that a person becomes aware that it might be relevant to him or her.

What this means for marketers is that stimuli caused by the product need to reach a certain level of intensity before they can register with the consumer. Only then can information can be further processed in the brain. But only a fraction of the absorbed stimuli gets anywhere close to the perception threshold. Advertisers aim to use an intensity of stimuli that catches and keeps the attention of consumers.

Aggressive marketing campaigns

The information overload in the media these days means that many marketers are adopting advertising campaigns that are especially stimuli-intense. Through aggressive advertising they attempt to draw consumer’s attention to their product. The general motto is: be noticed at any price – the more colorful, the more shrill, the louder; the better. In many ways, this method shares similarities with guerrilla advertising.

One company that certainly embodies this approach is Paddy Power, the Irish betting company. They have become famous for their use of controversial, and in some cases, very aggressive marketing campaigns. In 2005 they launched a billboard depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic ‘Last Supper’ painting, however, the image showed Jesus and the Apostles playing cards and gambling. Ultimately the advertisement did not last long, as hundreds of complaints made both to Paddy Power and the Advertising Standards Authority ensured that it was withdrawn. However, the campaign did get people talking and reading about Paddy Power. In any case, this is also only one example of their campaigns that have some controversial aspects to them. What these ads all manage to guarantee is exposure for the Paddy Power brand. The whole ‘be noticed at any price’ approach has been well and truly embraced, as is demonstrated by the multiple lawsuits that have been taken against the company.

Increasing the relevance of the advertising message

The increasing information overload and the ever-growing perception threshold means that marketers are constantly looking for new marketing strategies. On one hand this means increasing the stimuli intensity so that potential customers might even become aware of your product (however, this also contributes to a ‘sensory overload’). Advertising messages that tend to remain in the heads of consumers are those that are emotionally provoking. A good example of this is the ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ from Dove. Instead of using models to advertise their products, the skincare company used images of women of all ages and all body types, who were from different walks of life. Ideally marketing should not only be noticed, it should also have connotations that are user orientated and also target specific. By getting the consumer to make positive associations with your product as well as meeting their consumption-related needs, the product becomes much more relevant to them and much more likely that they will buy it.

Get involved with things already relevant to your audience

Without a doubt in the past few years the internet has become the most important platform for advertising, however, it is getting more and more difficult to get the attention of customers online. The average amount of time spent on an internet page is less than 40 seconds. In fact, some studies have shown that this figure can be as low as between 8 and 12 seconds. This makes it clear that online advertising approaches need to be able to reach the user as quickly as possible. Images and pictures are perfect for this as they can be processed by the brain in just a fraction of a second. It is generally accepted that the shorter and more intense an advertising message is, the greater its chances of success are.

Another potentially effective solution could be some sort of involvement strategy approach to marketing. This is where you integrate current events into the marketing of a product. Marketing a product under the general umbrella of a specific theme that is of great interest to a large target group appeals to something slightly different in a consumer’s mind. With the right target audience, this strategy can generate extremely positive associations with a brand.

Major sporting events are a prime example of this. The likes of Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Samsung, etc. have spent billions of dollars to sponsor events like the World Cup, Olympics, etc. This has allowed these brands to get within the perception threshold of the billions of people across the world who have an interest in these sports. By associating themselves with so many people’s favorite sports, the company then manages to portray itself in a positive light. Highly involved fans seem to become more receptive and open to the sponsorship, which in turn can often lead to more conversions for the brand.

A very recent example of this is from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Samsung was one of the main sponsors, and without any doubt deemed the endeavor to be a resounding success, achieving over 1.6 billion social impressions and engaging close to 121 million fans.

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