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How Sludge Content Recaptured Our Attention Spans

Nov 22, 2023

Social Media Marketing News

How Sludge Content Recaptured Our Attention Spans

With attention spans dwindling year by year, getting the modern consumer to stick around is an increasingly difficult task. 

2023 has seen brands and creators alike scrambling to come up with new tactics to coerce users to sit through videos and engage with content longer than five seconds. From videos with enough jump cuts and transitions to make you nauseous, to splicing up movies into a million bite-sized pieces, trying to keep up with the latest attempt at attention-grabbing is a feat in itself. 

This broader trend, of content aimed at holding attention in new and creative ways, has been coined ‘attention layering’. 

Earlier this year, a particularly controversial addition to the attention layering roster tentatively stepped into the ring; sludge content. The response was divisive to say the least. Millennials felt instantly twenty years older, Boomers ran to their Facebooks to make their worries known, and Gen Z and Gen A happily scrolled on. 

Despite its controversy, it looks like sludge content is here to stay. Its ability to cater to users’ needs for distraction in a world hell bent on overstimulation makes this trend a success. 

What is sludge content?

Sludge content, in its most basic form, encompasses videos that feature upwards of two clips playing together at once. For example, a video clip from Family Guy, next to a Subway Surfers video, alongside a soap cutting video. Typically, the clips are spliced together like a collage and posted on TikTok.

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Sludge content has grown incredibly popular on TikTok, with users claiming the busyness of the videos have a calming effect. The content is both a result of, and contributing to, our increasingly shorter attention spans. 

Whilst the jury is still out on how sludge content came to be, experts believe that it may have been born out of copyright issues, as the vast majority of sludge videos feature Family Guy scenes. Many have been quick to guess that users originally started splicing these videos together with unrelated content as a way to bypass copyright infringement on platforms such as YouTube. 

Others believe that sludge content is merely building on a trend that has been prevalent for many years; trying to hold users’ attention in strange and funky ways. Keeping the modern consumer’s attention is no small feat and creators are swept up in a perpetual tornado of trying to create new ways to cater to consumers.

What sets sludge content apart, however, is its success. It has been found that sludge content videos are able to hold a TikTok user’s attention for 40 seconds; eight times longer than regular TikTok videos. 

Where does this success come from?

@anthonypadilla

#Vsauce explains “sludge content” on tiktok @corndogwilly (full vid coming tomorrow)

♬ original sound – Anthony Padilla

What makes sludge content so successful?

Sludge content is so effective in that it provides a moment of calm amongst the bustling, borderline stressful nature of TikTok feeds. 

According to experts, we have become so used to constantly being exposed to an extreme amount of content, that we have been trained to seek out this feeling of overstimulation. 

Sludge content has the ability to halt a user’s doom scroll, as it is able to provide users the same sense of peace scrolling through TikTok during a movie creates. This feeling of calm, of not needing any other stimulation for even just thirty seconds, is addictive. 

However, this trend is not all sunshine and rainbows. 

Critics are convinced that sludge content is proof of that infamous TikTok brain rot all parents are concerned about. They claim that the videos are evidence of our critically low attention spans, and that the multiple video format provides the opportunity for brainwashing. 

If this seems like a stretch, it’s because it is. After the first wave of concerned parents arose – voicing their worries that sludge content would allow creators to secretly put dangerous ideas into impressionable users’ heads by hiding it in the background – scientists and the like quickly stood up to calm the panic. 

Sludge content does not have the ability to subliminally rewire young users’ brains, nor is it cause for panic over attention spans. Abstractly, the form is not groundbreaking nor a new phenomenon and attention spans are not going to shorten overnight as a result of sludge content

@orciadvertising

We’re more of a #SubwaySurfers crowd ourselves, tbh. ??️ #SludgeContent #Agencytiktok #agencylife #socialmediamarketing #marketingtok #advertisingtok #socialmediatrends

♬ original sound – OrciAdvertising

How to hack attention layering 

For brands looking to join in on the attention layering trend your options are, thankfully, broader than simply posting sludge content videos. 

As a broad trend, attention layering is about providing a brief moment of calm and respite for users. Whether this be through chaotic sludge content, or more stripped back videos. 

One route to go down is to play with new attention formats. This is the most cut and dry, sludge-esque route. A great example of this is Paramount Plus releasing Mean Girls on TikTok to celebrate October 3rd. As it was both time-bound and featured bite-sized content clips, the campaign played into the attention layering phenomenon and revamped a classic piece of media for modern audiences. 

@meangirls

TikTok just got a little more fetch. #MeanGirls

♬ Mean Girls is available on Digital – Mean Girls

In contrast, many brands have taken the opposite approach, by trying to curvetail the need for overstimulation in consumers. Nissan, for example, partnered with the popular creator Lofi Girl to advertise the launch of its new product. The brand released a looped animation in line with Lofi Girl’s usual content; the perfect antithesis of sludge content in its stripped-back simplicity. 

sludge content: Nissan X Lofi Girl

Finally, experimenting with out-there narrative styles is a further way to engage with attention layering. The NFL partnered with Disney and Pixar to create an animated livestream of the league’s first game in london. The entire match was transformed into a Toy Story-esque cartoon, successfully reaching new audiences and tapping into the creative reshaping of narratives that is indicative of the attention layering phenomenon. 

@espn

When the Falcons and Jaguars face off in London on Oct. 1, an alt broadcast on Disney+ and ESPN+ will be fully animated in real time from Andy’s room. #nfl #football #toystory

♬ original sound – ESPN

The future of attention layering 

But, where does attention layering go from here? Is our future filled with an increasing amount of clips sandwiched together on a screen? 

Thankfully, this seems unlikely. Already there is a rising trend of anti-sludge videos, with creators seeking to achieve the same goal as sludge content and attention layering as a whole but from a very different angle. These videos seek to highlight the beauty in human nature through acts such as romanticizing mundane moments via the Wes Anderson aesthetic.

All in all, whether you are confused by the younger generation’s desire to watch twenty things at once, or excited about this new attention grabbing tactic, attention layering is a trend worth watching. 

In time, sludge content will move over and the internet will make way for a new method to keep audiences watching. Whilst the method may change, the goal will remain; holding users’ attention for as long as humanly possible. 

Our influencer marketing agency and social agency are located worldwide, with our agency network based in the USA, UK, UAE and China.

If you want to find industry insights, visit our influencer marketing and social media blogs.

@ Socially Powerful

Author

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Ella Proctor

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