Abstract The concreteness effect in verbal short-term memory (STM) tasks is assumed to be a consequence of semantic encoding in STM, with immediate recall of concrete words benefiting from richer semantic representations. We used the concreteness effect to test the hypothesis that semantic encoding in standard verbal STM tasks is a consequence of controlled, attention-demanding mechanisms of strategic semantic retrieval and encoding. Experiment 1 analysed the effect of presentation rate, with slow presentations being assumed to benefit strategic, time-dependent semantic encoding. Experiment 2 and 3 provided a more direct test of the strategic hypothesis by introducing three different concurrent attention-demanding tasks. Although Experiment 1 showed a larger concreteness effect with slow presentations, the following two experiments yielded strong evidence against the strategic hypothesis. Limiting available attention resources by concurrent tasks reduced global memory performance, but the concreteness effect was equivalent to that found in control conditions. We conclude that semantic effects in STM result from automatic semantic encoding and provide tentative explanations for the interaction between the concreteness effect and the presentation rate.