Did you see the unicycling clown?

Way back in 2009, the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal published some interesting research about a unicycling clown.

Researchers at Western Washington University were keen to investigate the effects of divided attention during walking – comparing the impact of different distractions.

Two studies were carried out with people given the simple task of walking across the university square. Some were asked to talk on their mobile, others listen to their MP3 player, some walking in a pair, others walking alone without any electronic device.

The researchers were interested in the ability of people to notice new and distinctive stimuli. A first study, looked at the time it took individuals in each different group to cross the square, whether they stopped, weaved, tripped or stumbled, if they were more prone to collide or come close to colliding with others – and their ability to acknowledge other people.

And then the second study, threw a clown into the mix. Would the participants notice a brightly coloured clown riding a unicycle around the square?

So what did they learn?

Well in the first study, they found that mobile phone users and people in pairs walked more slowly than those listening to music or walking on their own without electronic equipment. Those on their phone also changed directions more often, were less likely to acknowledge other people and weaved more than others.

And in the second study, mobile phone users were the least likely to say that they had noticed the unicycling clown.

The research concluded that 75% of mobile phone users demonstrated something they called ‘inattentional blindness.’ Quite simply, with a mobile phone in our hands chances are we’re simply not paying attention.

So what are the real implications?

Let’s get over the fact this inattentional blindness is causing people every day to put their lives at risk. I write from experience here having nearly been mown down by bicycling London Mayor Boris Johnson whilst checking my emails (you could say another bicycling clown). And this is backed up by a study carried out by scientists at the Tempere Institute of Technology where 1 in 10 people admitted to having nearly had an accident using a mobile phone.

The issue is the outlook could be every bit as hazardous for marketers – in particular those who remain wedded to the traditional way of doing things and continue to ignore the opportunity mobile presents.

Think about it, that unicycling clown could just have easily been an expensive billboard campaign. It could have been an all-singing, all-dancing exhibition stand. It could even have been a neat experiential stunt that was just plain ignored.

The fact is, mobile phones – and smartphones specifically, are captivating our audiences. Nokia punted a statistic back in 2010 that the average person incredibly stares at their phone 150 times a day. Believe it or not but that would work out at once every 6.5 minutes of each waking hour.

And remember these folk aren’t just using their mobile socially. The divide between our professional and personal lives is becoming increasingly grey. According to iPass, some 61% of mobile workers sleep with their smartphones (not in that way) – with many of them waking up during the night to check them. Albeit not necessarily to read your fantastically well targeted email.

Even if the stats sound preposterous, there’s no denying mobile devices are captivating people – and are arguably, where we should be directing more of our marketing efforts.

If you wanted any more convincing, here’s some final food for thought from Google: “Roughly one in seven searches, even in the smaller categories, are happening on a mobile phone, but how many of you are putting one seventh of your resources into mobile? …It’s like not doing business with your customers on Thursdays.”

By earnestagency 23 March 2012
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