Brands, agencies, consumers! Lend me your ears!

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Human attention has value -- and information overload has broken the exchange

In one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, Mark Antony appeals to the ever-fickle Roman mob, asking to borrow their attention. He uses it to change their minds entirely, and thus the course of the play.

I love this line because it simply encodes the idea that attention has value. The art of rhetoric was codified in ancient Rome because all they had was their words to attract and hold the attention of the crowd. To stir and move the hearts of men was power.

Human attention is aggregated by the media-industrial complex, packaged into fungible units and sold to advertisers, that they might use it to open the wallets of men and women. It’s such a foundational concept in advertising that we don’t really think about it. We buy attention in the form of impressions, pour those impressions into the top of the funnel and then look for the sales at the bottom.

Something that is being bought and sold has value, but what else do we know about attention? Clearly it is finite since it has value — that’s the foundation of economics. Since it can only be experienced subjectively, feel free to play along at home as we explore what else we know.

If you are currently reading this, you are paying attention to me. So we know something — that attention is something that can be directed. Indeed, attention is the most direct form of consciousness, and you can choose to pay it to whatever you want, so we know that it is something you control. Except that when a fire alarm or gunshot goes off, it will automatically snatch your attention away, and you can’t stop it. So while it’s often in your control, it’s not always.

We know attention has a normative duration because attention deficit disorder exists. Various studies about the impact of the social-content avalanche suggest that human attention spans are getting shorter, but the methodologies look deeply spurious for the conclusion drawn. Regardless, we know it has some kind of duration and, according to Miller’s Law it also has capacity. Miller’s research suggests that the capacity of working memory is about seven things.

It also sorts priorities. If you hold out your thumbnail in front of you and look, your eyes only see in high enough resolution to read properly in that area — it’s called the foveal center of your vision. Everything else is blurry, but your brain smooths it out to create the [false] sense of verisimilitude in your perception. We can keep this up for a while, finding out new things about attention. You can not see things you are looking directly at — that’s inattentional blindness. We almost never notice changes in the environment if the change is hidden by an obstruction — that’s called change blindness. We tend to not believe we are susceptible to change blindness, due to a persistent metacognitive error called change blindness blindness.

While reading this, you are doing me the courtesy of paying me attention. This creates an attention debt of sorts, because your attention is finite and has value, unless the content is sufficiently satisfying to earn your attention.

Advertising traditionally interrupts something that has earned your attention, buying its way in by paying the media companies, which subsidizes the cost of the content, which generates value for the user to rebalance the attention debt. So, most advertising doesn’t deliver much value to the viewer in and of itself, which wasn’t a problem when there was limited choice.

But now content comes flying at us in many different (and often digital) ways, and tools like ad blockers are reminding the industry that a significant number of people would like to avoid ads if they can, and now they can. The traditional value exchange has broken down, or at least many people believe it has, which amounts to the same thing. 

So advertising is now creating attention deficits that brands essentially owe people. What do ideas and strategy look like in this context? Well, friends, brands, agencies: Lend me your ears, and I’ll tell you.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which came out this week, and a contributing author of Digital State [2013] and What is a Brand? [2015], all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the TV show characters.


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