We have attention spans shorter than goldfish


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The digital age of smartphones and other devices has caused the average human attention span to decrease so much that even a goldfish can hold a thought for longer. Those with more digital lifestyles have difficulty focusing in environments where prolonged attention is necessary. With so much content available at our fingertips, we are becoming better at knowing what we want to engage with, and what we don’t. As I am writing this blog post, my iPhone next to me is an immediate distraction that prevents me from focusing all my attention on writing whenever it lights up.

This shortening attention span means that marketing needs to adapt and create new strategies to keep the attention of consumers. The average television ad is now just 15-seconds long, compared to the 30-second and full-minute commercials that used to be the standard decades ago. The NY Times cites a study of “viewer abandonment” in which an average of 20% of viewers abandon an online video after 10 seconds.

So how can marketers be sure that their dollars are being spent effectively and actually reaching customers who are paying attention?


Design interactive ads.

Interactive advertising is described as a form of media-based marketing that provides a two-way communication between advertisers and audiences. Elements of interactive video include:

  • A clickable button for engagement via social media
  • An ad selector that gives consumers a choice among multiple categories
  • A window that pops up in which the audience can interact by answering a poll, or interacting with an animation

In 2013, only about 10-20% of all digital ads had some kind of interactive component. Today, that number is much higher with interactive components involved in banner ads on webpages, kiosks or electronic billboards on the street, as well as within video ads that play before a YouTube video for example. Even print ads in magazines allow consumers to use their smartphones in conjunction with the print ad to create an interactive experience.


An advertisement that requires the consumer to interact with it is more likely to be acknowledged rather than ignored or skipped.

  • Volkswagen’s banner advertisement for the new Golf gives consumers the ability to solve a puzzle within the ad under a timer. (Click the link to play the banner ad game).
  • McDonald’s banner advertisement allows you to click repeatedly on the button “Make it Better” and the ad changes each time you click with things like tomatoes rolling across the screen and doves holding a banner while the burger grows angel wings.(Click link to test it out).


  • Taylors of Harrogate, a coffee and tea company, released a video ad on Facebook with a window where you can click and design your perfect coffee based on your preferences.

While binge watching missed episodes of New Girl on FOX.com, I was given the choice to participate in a 30-second interactive advertisement, or proceed with the traditional 2 minutes and 30 seconds of various ads. By choosing to participate in the interactive ad, I was more engaged and focused with the brand, whereas I probably would have picked up my phone and scrolled through social media for the duration of the 2:30 ads until the episode returned.

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Create a meaningful message and tell stories.

As part of a requirement for my Marketing Principles class, I attended a lecture given by a VP of branding at Whirlpool. Traditional advertisements about appliances discussed new features of the products and how they were better than the competitors’. Whirlpool found that these ads were unsuccessful at leaving a lasting impact on the consumer and in fact, consumers still had a hard time differentiating various brands’ appliances even after watching the ads.  Whirlpool came out with a strategy to design a purpose within their ads, and make them more about the story and less about the product.

This video ad above is more successful at sustaining a viewer’s attention when it tells a story with a message that is relatable. I am more likely to watch the entire advertisement, as well as share it with my friends, when there is a storyline that seems authentic.

Less is more.

In a 15-second advertisement, it can become difficult to tell an interesting brand story in such a short amount of time. As mobile video viewing grows rapidly, brands are recognizing the need to design simple yet powerful ads. Viewers soak up more information during shorter commercials and lose attention when exposed to longer content. Advertisers should focus on keeping content short, and include images and headlines that encompass the message entirely like the 5-second Coca-Cola ad below.

YouTube will soon roll out six-second ads that you can’t skip. These ads are designed keeping those in mind who use mobile as their first option for consuming video. It will help brands get their message across to consumers, and with such a short advertisement of only 6 seconds, every viewer will be paying attention.

So what does this all mean?

It is obvious that digital has completely changed the dynamics of marketing and how businesses communicate with consumers. The distractions of technology makes it harder for brands to capture our attention and easier for us to escape.


By designing interactive advertisements that engage viewers, creating meaning and stories within ads that relate to the viewer, as well as keeping in mind that simple and short ads sometimes are more impactful, marketers can better reach the consumers with digital lifestyles that have shorter attention spans than a goldf- wait where was I going with this sentence again?


  1. Great post! I can absolutely relate when it comes to shorter attention spans–I have no patience for advertisements when I’m watching tv on my phone or computer. I have also encountered that choice between shorter interactive ads or longer traditional ads–it seems to be the obvious choice to do the interactive one and then be able to watch with no ads! I love that you mentioned the Whirlpool ad because this is one of my favorite campaigns. Their purposeful strategy in telling a story versus selling the product makes it more interesting and enjoyable. Similar to the P&G olympic advertisements, I find that the best ads are the ones that try to make an emotional, interactive connection.

  2. It’s pretty scary that we will soon have attention spans literally shorter than a goldfish…I wonder if this decrease in focus will help us to multi-task better or just lead to less productive work. I feel like it’s now more difficult for me to read through an entire article or book word-by-word instead of skimming to get the main gist. I think one positive outcome is that advertising is becoming more interesting and to the point. Shorter more interactive ads are more difficult to execute than ads of the past and it fun to watch marketing campaigns become increasingly more innovative and creative.

  3. Great post and very relatable. I strongly believe companies need to find new ways to communicate with customers. Ads as we know them just don’t work anymore. Consumers doubt what brands can say about themselves and prefer to have the opinion of other consumers or make up their own mind, which will strongly depend on how the brand will handle its interaction and relationship with the consumer, mostly online. From being exposed to 500 ads a day in the 1970’s, consumers are now exposed to as many as 5000 a day. Storytelling is a way to win their attention back, as you said with the Whirlpool example or as Amanda said with the P&G one. Another way is to let them participate in games or co-create their own products. The latest ad of BMW featuring Gigi Hadid is a good example i think: https://youtu.be/OwDtPixqJLc. Nice post!

  4. Great post, I could not agree more with you. I love how you opened up the post and illustrated and compared out attention span, one how it has decreased over the past 16 years and two how it is shorter than a GOLDFISH. I find that insane how we are so easily distracted. I could not agree more on how having my phone next to me makes it so much harder to focus on things. A study came out that if your phone is out at your table, being unused, you are going to have a less quality conversation than if it was not on the table at all. I think you found and illustrated really valuable information when you showed the different types of ads and how you gave us the ability to interact with the ads. Personally, I have never seen any of the interactive ads online, or any ads in general (I have adblock on chrome). You did a great job on your post, it was an extremely enjoyable read! You ended the post in a great way showing awesome videos and ended with a great infographic, which is a little scary to read. Amazing post!!

  5. I loved all the examples of interactive ads you included, as well as the statistics in the infographics. This is a topic that I feel comes up more and more frequently in news articles, but I liked that you showed how brands are responding to the fact that consumer preferences and attention spans are shifting. Well written blog! Great job!

  6. My attention span is way too short, except when I’m reading. Have you found any good ways for a person to improve his or her attention span? I could definitely see myself playing an ad game, if it weren’t going to send me to a new web page and my ad blocker didn’t block them all.

  7. Great post! Not sure where the goldfish stat comes from, but seen it several times.

  8. This is great! A lot of information and research clearly went into this post. I notice my own attention span dwindling in comparison to what it once was, and that’s not a good thing. This is something that advertisers need to improve upon in terms of their strategy. On another note, how do scientists even know to begin with how long the attention span of a goldfish is?

  9. Wow, 6 second ads?! That’s an incredible challenge for ad-creators. I’m actually very interested to see what brands really work to flourish with that kind of limit. Very interesting and well-researched post.

  10. willybbolton · ·

    I think this is a very relevant post. I think we live an age of information and over-saturation. They say that more information is created now every day than was created in world history up to 2006. This over saturation definitely makes our brains jump from one thing to the next very quickly, and it will definitely be a challenge for advertisers in the years to come. I think this is why brand quality and personality is becoming so important.

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