Most irritating things in media No.3: 'Passive'

In media, we like to create either/ors. Different media are generally pushed (or pulled of course) into various binary oppositions. As well as push/pull, we have lean forward/ back; interruption/engagement; new/old; and, today’s niggle, passive/active.

Unless you are reading this from a print-out (which is either very dedicated or rather weird), you are probably leaning forward, switched on, plugged in and active. Either way, you should be explicitly conscious of my every word landing neatly in your pre-frontal cortex.

But tonight at home – so conventional media wisdom goes – most of you will have swapped your office swivel chair and mouse for a sofa and remote control to watch some telly. You will have moved away from active and towards passive.

TV is generally deemed a passive pursuit.  It is indisputably a relaxed and enjoyable one – and especially on Monday evenings for me at the moment. I am overwhelmed with TV goodies: Murderland, Flash Forward, In Treatment, 30 Rock, Life.  So, as I sit there gripped by Robbie Coltrane’s story, or struggling to piece together the clues dropped around Joseph Fiennes or consumed by lust for Alec Baldwin can I really be described as passive?  I’m certainly not moving much, but it’s like Piccadilly Circus in my head. I shudder to think what my brain activity levels are when I watch Countdown.

As Robert Senior so elegantly put it, we’ve all got a PhD in film grammar these days, so adept are we at interpreting complex narratives from condensed audio-visual stimuli.  Is ‘passive’ the right word to use when we’re guessing who did what, working out what will happen next or solving a conundrum?  I prefer ‘receptive’.

Even if you think passive is the appropriate term, you should re-evaluate whether that’s good or bad.  The state of mind we are in when we watch TV has a big impact on the influence and effectiveness of TV advertising.

In his book ‘The Hidden Power of Advertising’ (a must-read for all) Dr Robert Heath developed his theory of ‘low involvement processing’. He suggested that the way we absorb brand messages can be either ‘high’ or ‘low’ involvement.

In a nutshell, ‘high involvement processing’ is conscious, active, explicit learning. You should be high-involvement processing now, reading this. High involvement messaging is normally rational, logical or time-sensitive information. Typically, print and online text are good at this.

TV can do this type of messaging too but is also processed at a low involvement level; a cocktail of conscious and semi-conscious activity. Much of it involves ‘implicit’ learning that takes place without you knowing that you are learning. You are currently low involvement processing what is going on around you – your colleague whistling that irritating tune again, the empty coffee cup on your desk, the smell of your colleague’s lunch – or even the smell of your colleague.

Information we receive via low involvement processing is squirreled away by our minds to our long-term memory without any conscious filtering which is when the risk of rejection is high. As such, it is an incredibly effective way of increasing a set of associations around a brand and is well suited to thematic or brand messages that need to be remembered for the long-term.

This more passive processing works best for brands where the purchase decision requires low involvement (little risk, little product differentiation; low cost; frequent purchase). But it can also be the best way to get a brand on the list for consideration for higher involvement purchases (like buying a car or choosing a holiday destination). We just don’t know it is doing that.

If you want to see this principle in action, just watch Derren Brown influence people’s behaviours without any active input from them.  Watch him from your sofa, where your body will be passive, but your mind certainly won’t be.

  • Tess Alps
    Tess Alps
    Chair, Thinkbox
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