Why Interruption Isn't Dead


The death of interruption?

There is a school of thought which tells us that “The age of interruption is dead.” That “People don’t like being interrupted.” It tells us the the deluge of commercial messages and clutter combined with our cynicism towards the ploys of marketers has rendered interruption impotent.

I'm not so sure.

A lot of the time we’re not actively searching for stuff

If people don’t want to be interrupted - if they don’t respond to marketers coming to them - then it seems to follow that this requires they go to marketers.

But the notion of the consumer as a conscious, active searcher rather supposes that people know precisely what they want. That they buy what they think they need. That they know what they need before they buy it. And that all their purchase decisions are conscious and planned in advance.

It treats all consumer decisions and purchases as if they were scanning classified advertisements. That is, for things they already know they want or need.

Yet if the knowledge and wisdom of behavioral economists, marketing scientists, psychologists, anthropologists and the like teaches us anything, it’s that consumer decision-making is emotional and highly irrational. And that the underlying mechanics of and reasons for purchase decisions are often invisible to consumers themselves.

As Alan Swindells has put it:

“For any individual consumer the world is made up of a myriad of vague ideas, thoughts, images and feelings. They come together in a loose network of meanings which shape consumer behaviour. Some of it is organised and structured but most of it is disorganised and unstructured. Some of it is thought about, rationalised and is articulate while most of it is vague, inarticulable and taken for granted.”

For Swindells most of the time so-called consumer decision-making simply does not happen - it’s an exceptional and abnormal response. It’s too trivial to be worthy of much consideration, and its mechanics are obscure even to consumers themselves. As a result, “much of what is actually processed is processed in a relatively passive way.”

Sometimes we’re looking for stuff. But a lot of the time we aren’t - though we are open to suggestion, prompting, and yes, even interruption.

Interruption still works, it’s just harder

Despite claims that interruption as a marketing approach (irrespective of the medium) doesn’t work at all any more, the supply of convincing cross-category longitudinal evidence is rather scant. However inconvenient it might be, simply repeating other people’s sweeping generalizations doesn’t make a thing true.

Certainly citing the volume of clutter does not mean that interruption is a broken model. Just that it’s harder.

Whether it’s Old Spice’s the man your man could smell like from the US, or Compare The Market’s meercats from the UK, there are still compelling examples of ‘interruption’ marketing that has demonstrated proven business results.

We’re wired for interruption

Our brains are wired to take notice of the new and surprising.

Wolfram Schultz, the professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge University has done much to uncover the workings of dopamine neurons in the brain. In experiments with monkeys, Schultz would sound a loud tone, wait for a few seconds and then squirt drops of apple juice into the subject’s mouth. At the outset of the experiment, dopamine neurons fired only when the juice was delivered, but the monkey soon learned, and the dopamine neurons would start firing at the mere sound of the tone. If there was no reward accompanying the tone - in other words if the brain system had made a false prediction - then the dopamine neurons would decrease their firing.

Schultz’s work has demonstrated that dopamine neurons work to detect and signal to the brain the presence of new and therefore potentially rewarding things. Consequently, they respond and get very excited by surprising stimuli and events, and are uninfluenced by predicted events, or events that are worse than predicted.

As Jonah Lehrer puts it, the dopamine system is a system that is all about expectation. It predicts (sometimes incorrectly) the possibility of reward.

Because objects and events in our environment carry all manner of potential for our welfare, survival and reproduction, our brains are wired to respond to the presence of potential rewards.

In other words, we respond to the unexpected - the stuff that interrupts us - because there might be something in it for us.

Surprise vs interruption: The transformative power of creativity

There are a lot of things that interrupt our behaviours, habits, or consciousness. E-mails interrupt, tweets interrupt, phone calls interrupt, SMS texts interrupt, outdoor billboards interrupt, point of sale messages interrupt, on pack offers interrupt...

Indeed anything that isn’t solicited and intervenes in the flow of my day and consciousness is technically, an interruption.

We all know there are e-mails, tweets, phone calls, texts, outdoor billboards and so on that feel like an invasion of our space, time, privacy or consciousness.

And yet there are also those that clearly don’t - because they offer us something valuable - whether that's information, entertainment, distraction, solace, connection, or whatever.

The difference isn’t between stuff that interrupts and stuff that doesn’t. The real difference is between stuff that’s relevant and timely, and stuff that isn’t.

Between stuff that’s a surprise, and stuff that’s an interruption.

It would seem to be an obvious point. That one of the transformative powers of creativity is to turn what would be otherwise an interruption, into something that is altogether more welcome. However unexpected.


Alan Swindells, ‘The Invisible mechanics of consumer choice’, Market Research Society Conference, 2000

Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide