Why do we want to be entertained?

My wife is convinced I have ADD.  She may have a point in that I struggle to stay focused on anything for longer than 20 minutes and in truth I struggle to read most newspaper articles in their entirety without my mind wandering off.  Part of my problem is that I struggle with content that doesn’t grab my attention and then make a serious attempt to hang on to it.  Like my own blog for instance.  I need content that gets me thinking, makes me laugh, cry etc.  A good book, movie or TV show can do this for millions but what is it about this content that keeps us engaged while other content causes us to head for the coffee maker?  The answer to this question has enormous importance for people in marketing and yet when I’ve subtly, and not so subtly, asked this question to marketers they, like me, have no real answer.  Like me they tend to… well, make something up.

If like me, you decide to look up on the web what keeps people’s attention you will find some pretty weird blog posts that tell you to use the word ‘and’ a lot and to put confetti in your envelopes (I pray that doesn’t happen to me).  Indeed it seems that to holding people’s attention either nobody has written the definitive work, OR the person that has figured it out is Warren Buffett or Bill Gates.

And yet, just as we all like to get attention we all love to give our undivided attention to great content.  Just think about the number of times when talking to friends to talk about books, TV shows, movies and concerts you’ve seen, read etc.  It seems we like both the process of being engaged AND the process of reliving that engagement.  When I started work the founders of my company spent hours each week recounting lines from various Monty Python films or shows.  They derived huge satisfaction from this, much more in fact than they did from the actual work as far as I can tell.  That level of engagement is a marketers dream.  Yet I doubt for a second that anyone who had responsibility for the Python franchise knew why people loved their content.  They just knew they did and they made every effort to take advantage of that.

Of course it may be that trying to capture engagement in a bottle and analyze it is a fruitless exercise.  It may be that the ingredients of fun are a secret we shouldn’t learn.  That said, authors, movie makers and comedians do have formulas they use to create successful products.  We all know that these formulas fail from time to time though.  Witness the Bruno movie that repeated the Borat formula.  In other words even the best of us know only parts of the formula.  As a result the secret ingredient that makes an idea work either shows up and turns it in to good work, or takes a vacation and leaves us bored and rather annoyed.

What is clear is that humans love to be entertained and engaged.  We love a book (Kindle) that we can’t put down.  We love a movie that makes us laugh for days afterwards.  I for one have no idea why we crave this in the same way we crave food that is bad for us but we do.  We seek out great content as if it were that food.  Unlike fattening food, however, this content stimulates our brain and gets us thinking.  Sometimes it gets us to think about profound issues, and sometimes it gets us to think about topics so irrelevant we get to escape our daily lives for a few minutes.

In short, therefore, it seems clear to me that the marketer who could figure out some magic formula for grabbing and keeping our attention will make billions.  Until then we will all keep guessing at that formula time and time again.  Sometimes we will succeed and other times we will fail.  But at least we’ll have fun trying!

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One Comment on “Why do we want to be entertained?”

  1. Jay says:

    What if it’s the opposite, that these movies are a way to escape the reality, a distraction to forget about it


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