Why Inattentional Blindness Matters in Marketing

December 10, 2021 by
Tetra Prime Consulting, Aaron Garner

When it comes to marketing, there’s quite a bit of psychology involved. It may not initially seem like it. After all, marketing was created to sell stuff, right? 

Sort of. 

Marketing is about selling, but it’s much more than that. It’s also about figuring out what customers and clients need, how to deliver a solution to effectively meet that need, and the best way to communicate throughout the process.  

In order to put all of these moving pieces together, you have to understand how people think and what makes them act. At the very least, you have to know what they think they want or need and learn to communicate to them on that level. Simultaneously, you must figure out how to make sure they know your product will provide the best solution. 

It’s all about how they think


By definition, inattentional blindness occurs when someone is focusing intently on one stimulus and misses another, rather obvious, occurrence because their attention is elsewhere. 

The most famous example of inattentional blindness was demonstrated by Dr. Christopher Chabris and Dr. Daniel Simons in 1999. Watch the short video below to see the experiment in action. 

In the video, which was part of the original study, the instructions at the beginning tell you, the viewer, to count how many times players in white shirts pass the basketball. Simple. 

The action begins, and there are basketball players wearing white and black shirts, and everyone is moving. There are multiple balls in motion, too. The task seems simple: all you have to do is pay attention to the white shirted players. 

However, if you’re watching for the first time, you may not have noticed the gorilla. 

During the middle of the video, for a span of about nine seconds, a woman in a gorilla costume walks through the scene and beats her chest before walking back off camera. 

If you missed the gorilla, you’re not alone. In the original study, 50% of people didn’t notice. It seems like an obvious thing – in a room full of humans, a gorilla stands out. Sure enough, if you watch the video again knowing she’ll be there, you’ll see her, chest beat and all. 

But why do we miss the gorilla in the first place? 

Inattentional blindness. Our brains were looking for one specific thing: the players in the white shirts who were passing the basketball. We weren’t looking for a gorilla, so we simply didn’t recognize it in the moment because our focus was being used elsewhere. 

For another fascinating example of how inattentional blindness works, watch this short video from National Geographic’s Brain Games television show. 

Did you spot the color of the back wall changing?



It’s one thing to know about inattentional blindness, but what does that have to do with marketing? After all, most marketers are in the business of telling their audience what to see and/or what to do with that information. 

As it turns out, inattentional blindness has a close connection to marketing. If you want to do effective marketing, that is.

Complicated Messaging

When you think about a marketing message, there are several factors in play about what content needs to be present. 

  • Where is the message located? On social media? In a commercial? On a printed poster or billboard? 
  • What do you want the customer to do with the information? Call? Make an appointment? Buy a product? 
  • How will you make the customer care? Tell them the benefits? Tell them the price? Tell a meaningful story? 

For each marketing message, your copy and graphics matter greatly and must work together to create a cohesive message. In video, there are additional elements to balance such as music and motion. 

With so many assets in action, a message can get complicated pretty quickly. A complicated message is not one that will serve your business well because (you guessed it) inattentional blindness kicks in. 

Some common scenarios with complicated marketing messages: 

  • Too many things to pay attention to = customer tunes you out altogether
  • Wrong things emphasized = customer tunes out because they don’t connect 
  • Don’t know what the message is = customer doesn’t understand the expectations or purpose, so they’re not buying

In order to create clear, effective marketing messages, you have to be aware of inattentional blindness so you can use it to your advantage. Knowing that people have one primary focus when they’re seeing your message is helpful because you can decide what that is. 

People love to be told where to direct their attention, particularly if not having to make that decision can help them solve a problem quickly and efficiently (and if they connect to it personally while they’re engaging with it).  

When you’re putting out complicated marketing, you’re not being tricky, you’re being ineffective.

Banner Blindness

In the digital world, we’re surrounded by advertising and other forms of marketing. We’ve even reached a point where the ads are targeted and retargeted to us based on our own data. 

While some people love this technology, many people avoid it at all costs. In fact, research has shown that the younger generations are getting better at avoiding advertising with ad blockers and paid subscriptions that offer ad-free experiences. CNBC reports that 69% of Generation Z physically avoids ads. 

Running ads is an intricate game because people are becoming used to where ads are typically placed and ignoring them. 

This is particularly true of banners, or the large graphics at the top of web pages. When banners an overt marketing message or ad, people scroll past.   

This leads to a phenomenon called banner blindness. Banner blindness is essentially when viewers ignore the banner marketing and skip right to the content below. Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re scrolling past the banner because it becomes like second nature to avoid obvious advertising. 

In terms of inattentional blindness, this means that customers who want to read your content or interact with some specific element of a web page (or digital app) won’t necessarily even see your marketing or advertising – especially if it’s in places they know they can avoid. 

Much like the gorilla in the basketball video, your banner or sidebar ads will go unnoticed, and therefore be an ineffective marketing tool. 

Fail to Get the Sale

Here’s the thing: you want to help people. You probably have a dynamite product or service that can do some real good in the world, and you know it. But it can be frustrating trying to tell people about it because marketing is complicated.

It’s not just about ads, or messages, or even storytelling, although the latter is the most important piece you can include. It’s about understanding people and being able to present your solution in a way that shows you care and that you know what they’re going through. 

The price and packaging are, of course, important. As are the copy and images you use to catch people’s attention. But if you don’t understand your audience, none of it will actually matter. 

The world is a busy place and although our brains are powerful, there are only so many things we can comprehend at one time. So when you create your marketing, a complicated message or putting ads in places where people are known to skip it, often without even noticing, that won’t get you very far. 

We all have inattentional blindness sometimes. If the goal is for your audience to be paying attention to one aspect, but you talk about several different aspects in a 30 second commercial, for instance, they could easily get caught up in how well they liked the commercial rather than how well your product could solve their problem. 

The value won’t be as clear, and you’ll miss the sale because they can only pay attention to one thing – and it probably won’t be the element you want them to focus on. It’ll be the element that catches their attention the quickest. 

Knowing about inattentional blindness is greatly helpful for marketers and marketing teams because it can help create better stories and better ways to communicate with the audience, which is the pinnacle of marketing success. 

Tetra Prime Consulting, Aaron Garner December 10, 2021
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