TiSEM Research Blog Robert Smith

Background Ads are Everywhere, But How Do They Affect People?

Published: 09th December 2019 Last updated: 10th December 2019

People often encounter advertisements in the background while primarily focused on other stimuli (e.g., while multitasking). For example, someone may listen to the radio while browsing the internet, checking social media, or performing a variety of other tasks. People also commonly hear television ads in the background while focusing on their mobile devices. My coauthors and I have spent several years running experiments to examine how people are impacted by background advertisements.

We define background advertisements as advertisements that individuals are exposed to while primarily focused on a concurrent but unrelated focal task. Whenever people multi-task, their attention shifts back and forth between the multiple tasks or stimuli. Past research has made it clear that most people’s attention shifts often and inefficiently. This is why we’re so bad at multi-tasking.

Our research shows that people notice some of these attentional shifts, and they draw conclusions based on them. Specifically, if someone finds themselves very distracted by a background ad, they conclude that they must be interested in the brand or product being advertised. The more someone thinks they’re distracted by an ad, the more they want to buy the product from the ad.

What Does This Tell Us About Psychology and Consumer Behavior?

A lot of interesting research shows that people draw inferences or conclusions based on their mental experiences. For example, some of my other research shows that if you think you remember a charity well, you generally conclude that you like it and therefore donate money to it. This thinking about our mental experiences (such as drawing conclusions based on our memory for something) is called metacognition.

My coauthors and I show that distraction is another mental experience that people draw conclusions from. In other words, we have demonstrated a novel source of metacognitive inferences.

We further show what people conclude based on their distraction. People seem to believe that distraction implies interest, so they conclude that an ad that was very distracting to them was also very interesting to them. And of course, an interesting ad generally implies that they are interested in buying the product.

How Can I Use This in My Business?

The basic implications of this research for advertising is straightforward: make distracting ads, and people will want to buy your product.

However, some of our studies show that it’s not that simple. If an ad was extremely loud, for example, people recognize that the high volume was the cause of their distraction. In this case, they no longer associate distraction with interest, because they instead attribute their distraction to the high volume.

This means that advertisers should make distracting ads, but it’s best if this distraction is somewhat subtle. Using high volume and other blatantly distracting features won’t give your product the benefit of people thinking they’re interested in the product based on their distraction.

I’m Just a Regular Person, What Can I Do with This?

Being distracted by an ad is probably not a great reason to buy a product. It’s true that we pay more attention to ads for products we want to buy, but not all distraction should tell us that we love the product.

So next time you find yourself really distracted by an ad, ask yourself why it was so distracting. It may be because you want to buy the product, but it may simply be because the ad used distracting elements, or because multi-tasking is hard.

Want to Know More?

If you’re interested in reading our article, it’s called “The Meaning of Distraction: How Metacognitive Inferences from Distraction during Multitasking Affect Brand Evaluation,” by Daniel M. Zane (Miami University), Robert W. Smith (Tilburg University), and Rebecca Reczek (Ohio State University). It will be published in the near future by the Journal of Consumer Research. It’s based on Dr. Zane’s dissertation, which was conducted under the supervision of Drs. Smith and Reczek.


Academic profile: dr. Robert Smith