Imagine trying to get through the day without digital screens or that little computer in your pocket. The internet and digital world help us function in more ways than we might care to admit. But with all the perks of having everything instantly available at your fingertips, comes constant pings, beeps, emails, notifications, content, content, and more content. So, what’s the best way to cut through all of the noise? What effect does this digital dopamine vortex have on our brains? And how do we cut through it all when we're trying to get a message out there?
In this episode, our host Kyla Sims chats with neuroscientist Dr. Carl Marci about the impact that our devices have on our brains and how we can protect ourselves. Then, “Master of Decibels” Paul Mellor of Mellor & Smith shares his tactics for making brands famous and cutting through all the noise.
From looking after our prefrontal cortexes to standing out in the crowd, this episode examines the most annoying sides of the digital world and how to stand out in the bustling crowd.
Dr. Carl Marci: In roughly 2000, 2002, Americans were consuming on average about 45 hours a week of media, which is a pretty big number. That's a full- time job. Flash forward 2020, 2018, 2019, it goes up double. It's over 80 hours a week.
Kyla Sims: When you think of Canada, you probably think of the stereotypical Great White North, idyllic mountains, deep forests, and an endless, rugged wilderness. And for the most part, you'd be right. Most of Canada does look like that. Most of Canada is very quiet. But that's just because almost no one lives there. 80% of Canada is completely uninhabited. 90% of Canadians actually live in less than 10% of the country. Almost everybody is squished into just a few major cities, all less than 250 kilometers from the US border. For my American friends, that's roughly 150 miles. For the average Canadian, most of the noise of their daily life doesn't necessarily come from living in such close quarters. It comes from their screens.
Canadians spend 4.4 hours a day on mobile apps, even more than our neighbors to the south. We spend 22.6 hours a months on TikTok alone, and check our phones once every 12 minutes. And by 2024, digital advertising is expected to reach over 99% of the Canadian population. We are, as the kids say, extremely online. The flow of digital traffic that circulates coast to coast is constant, news, advertisements, transactions, staff emails, viral videos and Instagram feeds, all running 24/ 7. And what does this all mean if a big part of our day- to- day work requires us to participate in this constant bombardment? How do you get heard above all the noise?
You're listening to Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase. I'm your host, Kyla Sims. On today's episode, we're digging into what the constant barrage of messages, notifications, and content, content, and more content is doing to our brains, and how we can protect ourselves. I also want to talk about how to best deliver a message in all this noise. One way or another, we're all communicators. It's built into who we are. We can't just stop communicating, especially when it's our literal jobs. But how do we have our say without being part of the problem? Because, well, I think a lot of us like to picture ourselves as living above the digital fray, myself included. Who are we kidding? Unless we're willing to live under some pretty extreme and possibly lonely circumstances, opting out isn't really an option. So I found someone who's been looking at our brain's reaction to our digital habits since the turn of the century.
Dr. Carl Marci: Yes, hi, Kyla. Am I pronouncing that right, Kyla?
Kyla Sims: That was Dr. Carl Marci. He's a board certified psychiatrist who studies the neurobiology of human connection. He's also the author of Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age. Years ago, Dr. Marci started a company that measured the non conscious emotional response ...
Dr. Carl Marci: To media and marketing communications.
Kyla Sims: It was a pioneer in consumer neuroscience. He called it inter scope research. Then, just a few years after the advent of the smartphone, Dr. Marci was doing some research.
Dr. Carl Marci: We recruited young women, 19 to 22 year olds, who were heavy users of social media, again, this is around the same time, 2011, into the Time Warner Media Lab, which was in Columbus Circle, this beautiful lab. We had closed captioned television so we could see the rooms that they were in. And we randomized these women into two simple conditions. One is, watch an hour of television like you would at home with your phone. And the other was watch like you would at home, except we're going to leave your phone outside. And it was one hour, they're getting paid $ 150 to watch TV and have some monitoring devices. And what I noticed this first young woman in the group that was deprived of their phone, and we didn't think of it as a deprivation study, but that's ultimately what it was, she started to fidget in the first few minutes, and she started to fidget a lot.
And I'm watching her, and I was like, " I don't think she's going to make it." She gets up, walks out, grabs her phone, and leaves without getting paid. That's interesting. Second young woman comes into that condition without her phone, gets up, walks out, leaves. Now the other women in the other condition with their phone, they're happily sitting there for the entire hour looking at their phones. That was the first indication I had that this may be very serious, that what we're watching is a huge phenomenon.
Kyla Sims: That's wild. It's funny because when I was reading about that study in your introduction, I was like, "2011, we weren't even in full-blown social media saturation at that point." That really felt like the beginning of these things.
Dr. Carl Marci: They were already hooked.
Kyla Sims: It sort of blows my mind. I'm like, "Even then, 10 years later, 11 years later, I can't even imagine."
Dr. Carl Marci: Let me give you a couple statistics that might put this in perspective. In roughly 2000, 2002, Americans were consuming on average about 45 hours a week of media, which is a pretty big number. That's a full- time job. Flash forward to 2020, 2018, 2019, it goes up double. It's over 80 hours a week. Right? That's two full- time jobs.
Kyla Sims: Doesn't surprise me though.
Dr. Carl Marci: It's a big number. Right?
Kyla Sims: It's a big number. Yeah, it's huge.
Dr. Carl Marci: Right. Now at the same time, what else is happening? Well, you have people reporting the number of people who say they don't have a single close friend or confidant goes from 2% to 12%, so that's 10 X.
Kyla Sims: Huge.
Dr. Carl Marci: Huge difference. And then we see the rates of people sort of living alone going up. And we also see the rates of just about every major mental health issue, whether it's anxiety, depression, substance use, suicide, going up double digits at the same time. And correlation is not causation, but there's a lot going on there. I think the other really interesting fact about the adoption of this technology, which you alluded to, in 2011, although it was early days, people got hooked pretty fast. And remember, we recruited people who were already describing themselves as heavy users before it was a trend.
Kyla Sims: Right.
Dr. Carl Marci: But if you look at the period between 40% market share to 75% market share, it's a kind of benchmark so you can compare different technologies over time, and if you look at say a telephone and electricity, it took about 15 years for those technologies to go from 40% to 75%, the internet and personal computer, about 10 years. Television was the reigning champion at five years. The smartphone, three. Yeah, so it blows away the record. Right? I mean, that's a big number.
Kyla Sims: I know.
Dr. Carl Marci: So these are big changes. And you know what I like to say, as a mentor of mine once said, when behaviors change, brains change. Right? And we know everybody has new behaviors around this technology. You can just see it walking down the street.
Kyla Sims: So what is going on in our brains when we are consuming media?
Dr. Carl Marci: Well, that leads us to a conversation about the prefrontal cortex. So the prefrontal cortex is behind our forehead and eye sockets. And it is the most highly evolved part of the brain. It's the part of the brain that really is the difference between impulse and insight, distraction and focus, and reaction and reflection. Right? It's what separates us from other mammals on the planet. And I make the case in the book that it's the part of the brain that's most under assault in the digital age. If we think of the brain as kind of a balance between our emotion and reward centers, which create all the excitement in the world and give color to things, and draw us towards things, our prefrontal cortex is one that says, "Hold on. That may not be the healthiest thing to do every day."
We need a healthy prefrontal cortex to do that. Now what the neuroimaging studies clearly show, whether it's video game addiction, gambling addiction, or cocaine, opiate, alcohol addiction, is that the reward centers light up like a Christmas tree and they drive our behavior. And the prefrontal cortex essentially shuts down, so we don't have the ability to put our brakes on. And I tell patients who tragically are addicted to substances, particularly the opiates, the painkillers, which are so powerful, 1000 times more powerful than the most rewarding sunset you'll ever see. It's hard to compete with that. I said, "Look, your brain is a drug seeking missile. That is what you do."
Literally, they have a shortened time horizon. They're only thinking about the next high. They're chasing the next high. You forget about everything else. And that's why relationships go by the wayside, work goes by the wayside, all kinds of negative consequences. Well, we're starting to see that with some behaviors around social media and these games and other, shopping, online pornography, that people are getting so much reward that their prefrontal cortex is shutting down. And it's becoming an end unto themselves. Right? So we all have changed our behaviors. We all have developed habits, some of which are healthy, some of which are not. But some of us are going on to the extreme of addiction, and I think where the field needs to go, that is the field of mental health and psychiatry, is really understanding who's at risk and how to identify them, and then how to begin to do treatment because treatment becomes a real challenge. If you're addicted to alcohol, you can do interventions, and over time, you can teach people you probably shouldn't hang out with people who drink and go to bars. But if you're addicted to gaming, or online shopping, or some social comparisons online, or you're developing an eating disorder because of social media, or you're depressed because of it, you still need your phone to function in the world.
Kyla Sims: That's it. Right?
Dr. Carl Marci: So it becomes really hard to treat, and so the American Psychiatric Association, this spring, I was watching a panel of experts talking about gaming disorders and addiction, and that's one of the hardest thing. And they're really talking about, well, our goal shouldn't be to get people to stop playing games, it should be to play less and not have it interfere with their life, a little like sometimes they talk about with people who have alcohol use disorders. They say, "Well, does everyone have to not ever drink again?" Can we get to a place where it becomes more tempered and something that can be part of your life? Or do you have to be cold turkey? It's a big debate in the field, and not one we've resolved.
Kyla Sims: So I imagine with COVID lockdowns, a situation where we're all isolated, scared, we can't connect in real life, we need our phones to get into stores, be able to show our little vaccine passports. I live alone. All I can really do is sit at home and consume media. Right? So it really amplified that loneliness, fear, uncertainty. Do you know how much our habits changed during that time, or how this lack of personal face to face connection changed our brains?
Dr. Carl Marci: Yeah. First of all, we know that, I believe it was Easter Sunday of 2020, so that first big holiday following lockdown showed the most streamed content in the history of the world. And we also know that there were significant increases in use of social media and streaming content, and of course, devices like Zoom and Google Chat, and all of these telephony devices that we're all now working with every day. New vocabulary around Zoom fatigue and other things that ... And we also know that rates of depression and anxiety, certainly symptom- wise, went up 20%, 40% in the US during that same time. We know that substance use went up. We know that a lot of things happened. So I think that the pandemic did two things for this topic. I think on the one hand, it made it worse because we're all spending more time, including myself, in front of screens. And so whatever bad habits we had got significantly worse. On the other hand, I think there's more awareness across the board that maybe this isn't the healthiest way to operate.
Kyla Sims: Interesting.
Dr. Carl Marci: Right. And lots of people are talking about, look, you want to increase your productivity, you've got to step away and close things off, and have dedicated email time, as opposed to trying to check and respond to everything. And so I like to say, "If I could help you increase your productivity, have better relationships, and increase your happiness, wouldn't you want that?"
Kyla Sims: Yeah, of course.
Dr. Carl Marci: Right. Okay. Well, then we've got to do a little less of this whole media thing.
Kyla Sims: Damn it.
Dr. Carl Marci: Sorry.
Kyla Sims: It's a trick. It's a trap.
Dr. Carl Marci: It's a trick question.
Kyla Sims: I'm going to tell on myself too much because I'm the one who's in my bed with my cellphone in one hand, my e- reader in the other. It's like, " Why can't I sleep?" It's terrible.
Dr. Carl Marci: I'm going to recommend that your New Year's resolution is to take those screens out of your bedroom. As a psychiatrist, I treat a lot of insomnia, and we talk about sleep hygiene. And rule number one is get the television out of there, put your phone in another room. They're like, "Oh, but I use it as my alarm clock." I'm like, Go buy an $ 8 alarm clock."
Kyla Sims: They're not expensive.
Dr. Carl Marci: Do yourself a favor. Right? And when you get up in the middle of the night, don't pick up your phone. It's hard to do, but you've got to click those devices and literally lock them up.
Kyla Sims: There's always this weird conversation about engagement. And how do we engage employees? How do we engage our audience? As if it's their responsibility to keep people engaged with their jobs, and I think it's such an interesting conversation because the word engagement has been used to the point of just-
Dr. Carl Marci: Silliness.
Kyla Sims: Silly, it doesn't even mean anything anymore. What is the difference between getting someone's attention and getting someone's engagement? And is there a positive way to engage people more so than a negative way in these spaces? What can we do to be more ethical about how we engage people?
Dr. Carl Marci: When I first started out in the consumer space, the focus was on emotion. And even talking about emotion was new because the perception was that marketers and communicators were authorities that used rational arguments to persuade people. And what we say using the tools of neuroscience over a decade of research, despite all the challenges, a shift. And I think that shift was from authority to authentic, from rational to emotional, and from persuaders to engagers. And the reason is, that's what people want.
So if you ask 100 people, "Do you like advertising?" 99 out of 100 will say, "No. I don't like advertising." Well, if you ask the same 100 people, " Do you like getting relevant information about new products?" 99 out of 100 people say, " Yeah, I like getting relevant information about new products." So guess what, advertising ceases to be annoying and disruptive, and even ceases to be advertising when it's personally relevant. So if communicators, regardless of whether it's external or internal, can create authentic messages and engage people, then I think you can win. Now what works best?
What we found over and over and over again was that people engage with stories. And if you think about it, we've been telling stories around campfires since the dawn of time, I mean, before we had written word and reading, which by the way, we've only had for about 5000 years. So what is a story? It has a beginning, middle and end. It typically sets a protagonist and an antagonist off on some kind of journey. They overcome some obstacles. They resolve those obstacles and they learn some lesson. Right? That's a so- called hero's journey. And there are many types of different stories out there. But if you're communicating something, you want to tell a story, you want to take your audience on a journey, but you want to make sure there's a message in it because its goal is to have some message. And that message has to be tied to the story.
We used to do these big Superbowl studies, and boy, there's some good Superbowl advertising and some bad Superbowl advertising. And there are highly engaging ads that no one could remember what they were for because they were very entertaining, but they didn't integrate the brand, product, or service.
Kyla Sims: Interesting.
Dr. Carl Marci: Right? So you got people's attention, but you didn't actually deliver the message because you didn't connect it to the emotion in that story. So the more authentic you can be, the more emotional you can be, the more you can use stories and you can tie your message to that storyline.
Kyla Sims: Okay. So speaking with Dr. Carl Marci, we get a sense of how easily our brains are influenced by new technologies. We can be safe and productive in our digitally intense world, but that requires some care on our parts. We need to keep up our connections in real life and keep an eye out for too much screen time. I mean, great idea, sometimes hard to do. Know that I'm seriously considering buying that wind up alarm clock. And since none of us want to be part of the problem, Dr. Marci's advice makes sense. Keep it positive, be authentic, and give the people what they want, a hero's journey.
You're listening to Infernal Communication, a podcast brought to you by Staffbase. Now if you want to take Dr. Marci's advice and get off your screen and get some real face time, well, you're in luck. On April 26th and 27th, I will be in New York City with hundreds of amazing communication professionals for Voices 2023. And I would really love to see you there. Voices is Staffbase's annual employee communications conference. And this year, as usual, we have some incredible workshops and speakers lined up, including the award- winning journalist, Soledad O'Brien. You'll get the chance to network, learn directly from your peers and industry leaders, be inspired by incredible speakers, and eat some of the best conference food I've ever had in my life. I'm not kidding.
Listeners of the show will also get a special deal on tickets, so head over to voices.staffbase.com, and enter the promo code VOICES-PODCAST-25 for 25% off your ticket. That's VOICES-PODCAST-25 for 25% off your ticket. It's going to be a great time. I really hope I get to see you there, and you can see how awkward I am in person. All right, let's get back to the show.
We're talking about noise and the sheer amount of clinging, tinging, haptic, hectic, clips, messages, notifications, and content, content, content, assailing our eyeballs and eardrums anytime we're anywhere near a screen, which is almost always. Like it or not, we are all bought and sold by the attention economy dozens of times a day. And hey, I'm a willing perpetrator and participant in some of this stuff, like I'm on a podcast being noisy in your ear holes right now. I'm also drinking from a mug with my cat's face on it, that the internet told me I needed. So I am not immune, but that leads us to an interesting question. What's noise and what's not? Is there a better way to get attention and cut through the noise other than just yelling louder?
Paul Mellor: We do it with some charm and some empathy, maybe a joke. People love a joke.
Kyla Sims: That's Paul Mellor. He owns his own advertising agency, where he's made up his own title.
Paul Mellor: My title is Master of Decibels. It's a EMD of Mellor and Smith. It's a play on words because I'm English, I love a pun or a joke.
Kyla Sims: So Paul's version of events goes like this. About 13 years ago, he got drunk. Then he proceeded to tell his employer, an ad agency, that he was better than they were, and that he was going to start his own.
Paul Mellor: And I woke up with a hangover the next day and thought, "I've got to do it now."
Kyla Sims: Paul Mellor is all about bold moves.
Paul Mellor: I run an ad agency that makes brands famous. And to do that, you've got to have an opinion and you've got to get the attention of potential clients, which is not difficult because the vast majority of agencies are very, very similar and sort of meaninglessly sort of bland, vanilla- y. And we're the opposite to that.
Kyla Sims: So how do you make a brand famous?
Paul Mellor: In the basics, we break it down into three things. We call them the abilities. You have to have the ability to go against the grain, against the grain ability, if that was even a word. You have to have an unacceptability, and you have to have an indomitability. So against the grain ability is the ability to do the opposite to everybody else. That's number one. You have to be prepared to be unacceptable and you have to be prepared to not accept the first thing that is produced within your business. And then you have to be indomitable. You have to be prepared to get in the trenches and fight. And you don't become the most famous brand in a category by being the nicest. There's a famous quote by a famous ad man in London called Dave Trott, and marketing is like a knife fight in a foam box. You've got to take market share of somebody else.
Kyla Sims: How hard is it really to cut through the noise in advertising right now compared to a decade ago?
Paul Mellor: Well, it's really difficult. I mean, that's the first thing, to get noticed is incredibly difficult. Every person is walking down the street with an in- built ad blocker. They don't want to be advertised to. Nobody's walking around going, " I wonder what brand A or B have done today." Nobody talks or thinks like that. They have got lives to live, children to argue with, husbands or wives to argue with as well. Isn't life great? But nobody wants to be advertised to, therefore, nobody wants to pay attention to the thing that you're trying to get them to pay attention to. But there is a much higher proliferation of media channels now than there were in years gone by. So therefore, there is just by its fragmented nature, it is more difficult to get noticed in that respect, just because there's more choice, there's more channels, there's more noise, as it were.
That said, the tool to getting noticed hasn't changed. A big idea that talks to people that is based on an insight, it's simple term is human truth, was the answer 100 years ago and it's the answer today. The issue of course is that it's difficult. And if it's difficult, not many people fancy it or can do it. And that's ultimately where brands succeed, the ones that really fancy it, they really want to find a big idea that talks to people and moves people. And they invest in it, and they focus manically on that thing. They'll be the ones that become the most famous brand in their category.
Kyla Sims: When I first learned about Mellor and Smith, I was actually on LinkedIn I think. And someone had posted a photo of one of your ads. I think it was the Fat Lads one. And I remember stopping and thinking, " Wow, that's really clever, and that's funny. And it's also kind of rude," or not rude, but I was like, " I don't know how I feel about this at first."
Paul Mellor:: Yep.
Kyla Sims: And then I was like, "I have to see what you're doing." So I went and I checked you out, and I started looking through all your campaigns. And there was this similar sort of cheekiness that ran through most of them that really, really set them apart from other advertisements and messaging that obviously I'd seen in the various categories that these ads were in. What do you think it is about that humor or cheekiness that's so effective in getting people's attention?
Paul Mellor: Yeah. If you go down the pub, or if you're in America, you go to the bar, or if you're in Paris, you go to a dinner party. If there's a boring person that all they do is talk about themselves, you're going to sort of make your polite talk and then leave. You're going to leave them to it, whereas if you meet somebody that's funny and engaging and has anecdotes, and has a twinkle in their eye, and there's a cheekiness to them, and they make you laugh, or at least smile, then you're going to hang around and you're going to want to spend time with them. You're going to want to have another beer with them. And that's how brands should behave. They need to realize, brands need to realize that people are interested in ...
They want to be entertained. They want to have fun. They want to be tickled. They want to be titillated. I mean, that's very English, titillated. And that's how brands should behave. And if you've made a connection, then you can start to build share of mind. Share of mind creates mental availability, and mental availability creates fame. The way that a brand becomes famous is by building mental availability.
Kyla Sims: A lot of our audience, they're obviously familiar with branding. Sometimes they're under the marketing umbrella. Sometimes they're under an HR umbrella. A lot of them are doing internal communications for large organizations. I'm curious if you have any advice for those people about cutting through noise in that environment.
Paul Mellor: I can totally see how there's loads of noise in internal comms. I get enough emails as it is, and we're a relatively small team. Imagine if there's 10,000, 30,000, 100,000 people in your business, there's a lot of stuff going on, to the point where you probably can't even do your job. But the principles remain, you have to talk to people with empathy. You have to talk to them on a level rather than talk down. This isn't a 30, 000 foot view. This is a one- on- one view. What does this mean for this one person? Empathy, not contempt. And then, go against the grain. Don't accept average. Be indomitable, dig into trenches and really try and shoot for the absolute best thing that you can produce. And this idea that good is the enemy of great is total, I mean, it's complete rubbish. I mean, this idea that, well, no, I'm only going to do something good because I can't be bothered to do something great. Well, I mean, there we go. I'm really glad you got out of bed this morning. ( Censored) shoot for something fantastic. Shoot for the absolute best thing you possibly can.
Kyla Sims: Just wrapping up, is there anything that I didn't ask you about that you think is worth sharing?
Paul Mellor: There's too much gray, too much bland. Get in there and ruffle some feathers.
Kyla Sims: Thank you, Paul. That's a great note to end on, so thank you so much for joining me.
Paul Mellor: Cheers.
Kyla Sims: So for those of you who have to tolerate and participate in the noise, noise, noise, I hope these conversations have left you with something to chew on, whether it's how to protect your brain and attention, or how to cut through the noise with meaningful communication, it's worth reflecting on how we all engage with and participate in this digital dopamine vortex. Being heard depends on it.
Today our guests were Dr. Carl Marci, psychologist, scientist, and author, as well as Paul Mellor, self-proclaimed loud mouth and co-founder of the marketing agency, Mellor and Smith. I'm Kyla Sims, and this is Infernal Communication brought to you by Staffbase, with production support from JAR Audio. Next time.
Genevieve von Petzinger: By about 300,000 years ago, there were people walking the planet who, they look like us, they have the same brains as us, and so again, that's really the question. Well, could they think like us?
Kyla Sims: Don't forget to hit follow on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows. And if you liked today's episode, please leave us a review. We would love to know what you think. Until then, thanks for listening.
Kyla is a writer, content creator, speaker and host of Infernal Communication.