How to cut through Attention Spam and stand out from competitors

June 15, 2020

How to make your business stand out from competitors

Anthony Tasgal a.k.a. Tas, a trainer, lecturer, speaker and strategist whose main occupation is advertising and marketing, discusses how businesses can make themselves stand out from competitors.

Stand up, stand out!

As someone who’s worked for centuries at the coalface of brand, marketing and communications let me ask you: what’s the biggest issue for a sparky small business, a start-up looking to make it big?

Answer (based on experience): the need to stand out, cut through, be different to the competition – often known in the trade as “saliency” (aka relevant distinctiveness). 

But everything is becoming same-y, me-too (or me-three) and homogenised.


The Main Barrier

How has this happened?

The short answer, I believe is that business is increasingly reliant on a pernicious and prevalent system I term “the arithmocracy”: the worshipping of metrics, for example, risks turning business (and especially marketing) into the provisional wing of accountancy, and inadvertently turning business into a branch of mathematics and making everything look standardised.

The Problem – It’s All in The Mind

However much you think your company, service or brand is genuinely unique, is that really the case?

I’d like to answer the question by appealing to the growing body of information under the heading of Behavioural Economics (you may have heard of it as “nudge theory”).

Because I want to help you/your company stand out by exploring how our brains work and how to work with them not against.


Not a Sponge, Bob

It is so easy for the brain to act as a filtering device, screening out what it expects to see, has seen before, or considers to be “nothing to see here… move along”.

For too long two metaphors have dominated thinking about the brain and neither helps in the context of storytelling. The brain as an all-knowing all-processing computer is the latest in the line of metaphors from the most advanced technology of the day: first the automaton, then the clock, then the telephone exchange (ask your parents) and now of course the computer.

But there are a raft of significant differences between the brain and a computer. 

Firstly, our brain is intimately connected to our body: much of the brain’s role is to take in sensory information and respond to it. Computers of course famously lack some of the characteristics of the brain and human discourse: though there has been some advance, AI researchers still struggle to imitate certain distinctive human characteristics: emotions, humour, irony and sarcasm (they need more English researchers for the last three). There is also the phenomenon known as The Uncanny Valley, the weird discomfort we humans feel when we are faced with a robot/AI/digital human.

Secondly, the brain is frequently compared to a sponge. 

Again, a misleading metaphor. This analogy suggests that our brains are constantly soaking in and absorbing, and by implication retaining everything that it absorbs. Neuroscience suggests otherwise: because the brain accounts for something like 2% of the bodyweight of the average person, but needs about 20% of all the energy of the body it is attached to, the brain is on a permanent drive to be as energy-efficient as possible. 

So, in fact the brain values effortless efficiency more than objective truth and other man-made criteria and so often this effortlessness tends towards the most efficient (or satisficing, in the language of Behavioural Economics) decision rather than the best. 9

Therefore, we need to rid ourselves of the “sponge” metaphor too, as it can seduce us into believing that our audience/reader/skimmer/lead/buyer will have unlimited space and time in their brain to breathlessly drink in whatever we have to offer.

Instead, best think of the brain as a filtering machine, designed not to soak up but to screen out and ignore incoming messages and information. 

So how to get through the filter, you ask

Attention Spam is born

Being a big fan of the creative use of serendipity (see my second book, “The Inspiratorium”), I accidentally created a term for this. One of the myriad occasions I have avoided the services of spellcheck, I was preparing a presentation on attention for a conference. Without realising, I went back and spotted that instead of writing the more expected “attention span”, I had typed “attention spam”. 

This seemed to fill a gap and succinctly avoid you having to read the previous three or four paragraphs: henceforth, I retrofitted a definition. Using email as the term of reference, in the same way that we think we are sending emails into people’s inbox, attention spam highlights how for most of the time it ends in their spam instead. Job done.

So, I have been using this expression to cover the theory above: that it is essential to make sure that whatever we produce, write or say is expressly intended to cut through the attention spam. Otherwise, it is just so much wasted effort. 

This is surely a more accurate and helpful way of thinking about how we should approach how we communicate in every sense.

Surprise, surprise!

Of the 6 universal human emotions that scientists since Darwin have identified, surprise is perhaps the least appreciated. 

The shock or twist of recognition means that it penetrates our conscious filters (or attention spam) and will create the emotional feel of “aha”, “eureka”.

Examples include Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, arguably literature’s first detective story, and Andrew Stanton, director and writer of “Wall-E”, “Up” and the various “Toy Stories”.

But let me end with my favourite example, the Death Metal Band- Party Cannon

Bay Area Deathfest II lineup


For their appearance on the poster for “Bay Area Deathfest II” in Oakland, California in July 2015 (“Brutality By The Bay”), they chose to subvert the semiotics of the genre: rather than the spikey, spindly, scrawley and Gothic lettering, theirs was Candy Crush-gleeful and gratuitously childlike.

And which is the band that stands out, that you remember, and feel good about?

So maybe you should think about your b(r)and- and how you want it to stand out.

Be surprising and be brave to cut through the attention spam.

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