“[A]dvertising is the original sin of the web,” says Ethan Zuckerman, the inventor of the pop-up ad, a form of digital advertising universally resented. Advertisers learn about our tastes and preferences by deploying invisible algorithms that stalk every click and scroll. The objective is to make us buy their product. Despite the sophisticated algorithms and artificial intelligence adapting to our everchanging tastes and preferences, there is one major limitation. We hold the veto, the choice to say no to distractions.

With competing interests at play—external input from streaming in from smartphones and internal input from thoughts—advertisers have to work hard to get our attention. More than our attention span shrinking, it is the information overload that is making us less attentive. The less focused we are, the more variety we seek to keep ourselves entertained. This vicious spiral turns us into screen addicts.

Once advertisers get our attention, then comes an old tried and tested strategy—Repetition. In Successful Advertising, written in 1895, Thomas Smith stated, “any old advertiser will tell you that he often gets orders from advertisements inserted sometimes many years before, and a constant phrase in orders is, “having seen your advertisements many times.” proving thus that continuous advertising alone has secured that order.”

What Thomas Smith said back then is still in use today—the first time people look at an ad, they may not see it. The fifth time they may read it, the seventh time ad gets irritating, the ninth time people begin to wonder if they are missing out, and by the twelfth time, they think the product must be good. But they are not yet driven to buy the product. A few more repetitions later, they begin to yearn for the product, and on the twentieth interaction, they are likely to hit the buy button finally. So if you ever wondered why we keep seeing the same ads over and over again, this is why.

Repetition influences the mind and plays on our subconscious learning curve. The net effect is memorization. We subconsciously memorize what advertisers want us to know about their products by forming associations. For example, when a jingle, a visual, or clever wording gets embedded in our mind, the next time we seek a particular type of product, the one with the most depth of penetration surfaces, and the magic happens. We hit the buy button for that product.

For those interested in mastering their mind, awareness of what happens when something gets our attention and is repeated back to us is critical. For example, a fearful thought is hard to ignore. But if that same theme repeats through different streams of thoughts, we buy that fear as real.

A little self-awareness and recognition of what is happening—entrapment of attention followed by repetition—goes a long way in ridding the mind of distractions. It helps put a stop to the cascade of thoughts that eventually takes over the mind and wastes its potential. This is especially true of negative and unproductive thought patterns. Mind mastery is crucial if we are to contribute something to the world. Everyone is capable in their unique ways, provided the mind is a distraction-free zone.

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Niranjan Seshadri

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