Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions - Carmen Simon (2016)


How to Balance Accidental and Purposeful Forgetting

In 2012, a lawyer named Mario Costeja González got really mad at Google. It all started 12 years earlier, in Spain, where Costeja was in financial trouble and a newspaper in Spain published information on his finances. Even though his issues were eventually resolved, Google still linked to that content years later, reflecting negatively on the lawyer’s reputation. Costeja contacted the Spanish authorities, demanding that Google remove the links. In the spring of 2014, the European Court of Justice asked Google to do just that: stop showing the links as part of the search results related to Costeja’s name. The European regulators also affirmed that any person from a European Union country had the right to request “inadequate, or no longer relevant,” information to be removed from searches. In a sense, Europeans now have what Americans don’t, for the time being: the right to be forgotten.

In the United States things are different. If you did irresponsible things during your college years and documented those unfortunate events online and you now want to be taken seriously, it may be tough because search engines have perfected the sedimentation of old and sometimes irrelevant information, which anybody can access. In a poignant New Yorker article, journalist Jeffrey Toobin describes the efforts of Christos Catsouras, who tried to do something close to impossible: delete information from the Internet. Unlike Costeja, who was worried about his reputation, Catsouras was devastated by the emotional impact of graphic images showing his 18-year-old daughter who was decapitated during a traffic accident. It took Catsouras five years to receive some compensation from the police officers who leaked the pictures, but he received nothing from Google.

Ever since the European ruling, Google has tended to more than 174,000 requests for removal of information, covering more than 600,000 URLs. But this only applies in EU countries. You may not be able to find something in Germany on, but if you search on, you may find it. Yahoo and Microsoft are joining the effort to remove search results and are expecting that, at some point, regulators may impose rules that require these links be removed outside of Europe, too.

Consider the possibility that your content, once made public, may never disappear. It is useful to stay humble and mindful of the possibility that what we want to place in our audiences’ memories today may change tomorrow.

Does the memory for your content have an expiration date?

The ability of your audiences to remember will influence their decisions, but their ability to forget may be equally important to your cause. Think of it this way: forgetting is accidental or purposeful. Accidental forgetting happens when people fail to encode new information we provide them or when existing knowledge we’ve given them decays over time because of a lack of reactivation. Forgetting is purposeful when we want to convince people to give up old routines in favor of new thinking. In this case, it is preferable that audiences forget the old and remember the new.

Reflecting on your own content, consider catering to both types of forgetting: reactivate your most important message often to avoid accidental forgetting and purposefully direct your audiences’ attention toward new things when the old does not serve them any longer. Keep in mind that the type of content and experiences you create can live in social memory potentially forever. Will they still do justice to your image and your cause in a few weeks, months, or decades?


Bill Besselman, vice president of integration and digital strategy at Under Armour, told me about an ad they aired a few years ago, showcasing how computers and clothing could merge. The ad portrayed a woman wearing a shirt that conformed to her body, changed color and temperature when she touched it, and displayed these metrics on her wrist. This sounds wonderful. The only problem is the shirt did not exist. However, that did not stop Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank from releasing that vision into the world. Besselman is impressed with Plank, who reinforces a “done, done, done” culture in their company. Plank is convinced that in the near future, retail items will have a connected chip. “We will create that shirt,” he claims.

If our audiences’ brains are constantly on fast-forward, then to be on people’s minds, we have to be part of their future. Reflect on your messages and ask, “Where will my content be a year or two from now?” Then create it from that point of imagining.


When we share information at Point A and plan for people to remember and act on it at Point B, the trajectory is not always a straight line. Portions of their lives often unfold like S shapes. Our audiences may plan to do something and may start off slowly at first, settling into routines or “best practices,” until something happens. An updated technology, a market crash, or a company restructure provides enough disruption, and a new S shape emerges. When we plan to influence other people’s memories and decisions, we must anticipate that these moments may occur in their lives, so we must be ready to generate new content and to associate it with new cues, memories, and decisions when disruption hits.


Analyzing your content and your audiences’ context, consider studying literature on “black swans,” unexpected events that can have an extreme impact on your goals and generate the start of a new S shape. Practical guidelines in this domain remind us that even though by definition, we cannot predict these kinds of events, we can prepare for them. Some steps include mapping out the space in which we operate and considering second-order and even third-order relationships between factors that have major implications for business success. For example, at one point, Apple had run out of lithium-ion batteries, which it needed for its iPods. Its suppliers sourced the polymer used to make the batteries from Kureha Corporation, a company that had been badly affected by the 2011 earthquake in Japan. Kureha held 70% of the global market for the polymer used in lithium-ion batteries.

Considering a list of possible disrupters in our audiences’ contexts, asking what-if questions, and determining contingencies will help us be prepared for the emergence of new S shapes.


The advantage of using brain science in creating content is that we can place memories in people’s minds and guide them toward action. When science-based principles are a result of empirical studies, we can enjoy valid and reliable results. Be cautious, however, of unfounded sources that advocate “the science of …” This is why we see myths such as “We only use 10% of our brain.” fMRI scans perpetuate this myth when interpreted by nonscientists. The colored areas we see on brain scans don’t indicate that only specific areas are active; they simply show higher activity in those areas. This does not mean the brain is idle in other areas. Other myths such as “Dopamine is responsible for pleasure,” “The amygdala produces fear,” or “Pictures are more memorable than text” capture the interest of nonscientists who are more eager to get attention than question scientific merit.

Using guidelines rooted in solid science allows us to influence what we want others to remember instead of leaving the process to chance. Using valid brain science in content creation is also important because our audiences’ brains don’t always receive messages with the intent to remember; there is a great deal of external noise and stimulation. Most of the time, people consume content in a state of partial attention and with the intent to multitask. And their own internal chatter often takes the spotlight of attention.


One of the most important memory lessons I remember from graduate school came from Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. In one of his lectures, Joordens discusses Dante’s Inferno, in which Dante travels to various circles of hell and meets horribly tormented souls. When they realize Dante will eventually return to the land of the living, the most pressing wish of these tormented souls is to be remembered by those who are still alive. At some point, we all desire to be in other people’s memories and to impact them in some way.

Being on someone’s mind and influencing decisions is a position of honor and responsibility. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, reminds us that “wars begin in the minds of people” and “that’s where peace can be constructed too.” Using the guidelines in this book, consider placing in people’s minds thoughts and ideas that are enduring enough and rewarding enough to take us on fulfilling paths.

After all, if people remember you, you are still alive.