Capturing attention in an age of plenitude



(A familiar theme revisited. One more time).

The world is a difficult and sometimes hostile place for ideas. It always has been and probably always will. New ideas have always have a hard time seeing the light of day, let alone finding an audience. Whatever field one looks to - art, design, cinema, architecture, engineering, science, and so on, great ideas still go undervalued.

Too many good ideas get killed or rejected, too many are overlooked. Too many of those of us who hold the purse strings, who own the venues of performance and publicity, who manage the channels of dissemination, who exercise the levers of influence, find courage and conviction abandoning us.

But as technology reduces the cost of both production and distribution it’s harder than ever for cultural content to find an audience. For we are awash with plenitude. We are living in an age of cultural oversupply. Pick any category of human production. From breakfast cereals to cute cat videos on YouTube, from erotic fiction for middle aged women to trendy sneakers, from organic restaurants to action movies, from high culture to low culture, there is more choice and variety than we need. Than we can possibly consume.

And with that plenitude, we are also let’s face it, oversupplied with crap. Crap books, crap films, crap restaurants...

Perhaps this is not surprising at all. Perhaps cultural production simply conforms to what the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon termed ‘Sturgeons Revelation’ (or Sturgeon’s Law as if is often referred to).

As he put it in in the March 1958 issue of Venture magazine:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.”

Plenitude such as this erodes value. And more. As behavioral economists teach us, we are inclined to pay greater attention to and a greater value upon that which is scarce. Amidst our oversupply of both the good and the bad then, we’re not merely battling for people’s attention, but against their indifference. 

And indifference is indeed a fearsome obstacle - as the fantasy writer Joan Vinge has written:

Indifference is the strongest force in the universe.  It makes everything meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it.”

The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel has written and spoken much on the subject of indifference and why it is so powerful. In a speech at the White House in 1999 speech, he said:

Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end.”

Whether we are artists or salesman, we can buy or rent exposure. The battle asintelligentadvertisers long ago woke up to, is not mere exposure. But for people's hearts and minds. For people actually giving a damn.

There is good evidence for this from the IPA.

The IPA 2009 report’s 'How Share Of Voice Wins Market Share: New Findings From Nielsen And The IPA Databank' notes that: “The critical metric that determines the level of a brand’s market share growth is its excess share of voice (ESOV), defined as share of voice (SOV) minus share of market (SOM)."

To to some degree, market share can be bought. However, the unfair advantage that any marketer can choose to leverage is the power of creativity.

In its report 'The Link Between Creativity And Effectiveness' - again based upon the DataBank data - the IPA provides an analysis of the relationship between creatively-awarded work and effectiveness.

The sample used for this study were the 257 IPA Effectiveness cases studies for which Gunn Report scores were all available.

As an aside, given that 257 represents less than 1% of UK advertisers, and around 1 in 7000 pick up the minimum major creative awards needed to be recorded in the Gunn Report each year, the fact that no fewer than 46 (18%) of the sample of IPA campaigns appear in the Gunn Report database already suggests that there is some kind of relationship between creativity and effectiveness.

Obviously this isn’t proof and so this study examined whether this 18% of creatively-awarded campaigns outperformed the 82% of non-awarded campaigns in hard business terms.

The short answer, is yes.

The IPA’s analysis reveals that that non-awarded campaigns, on average generate 0.5 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV.

In sharp contrast, creatively-awarded campaigns generate on average 5.7 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV.

In other words creatively-awarded campaigns generate around 11 times (that’s right, 11 times) more share growth per 10 points of ESOV than creatively-non-awarded campaigns.

But while we can rent eyeballs, we cannot buy people’s people’s minds. Their interest, enthusiasm or affection.

Sven Birkets, the author and director of the writing seminars at Bennington College in Vermont and editor of the literary journal AGNI, ponders the words of the French philosopher Simone Weil, who said: ‘Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer’, reminding us that ‘to attend’, etymologically, is to ‘stretch toward’, to seek with one’s mind and senses:

Paying attention is striving toward, thus presupposing a prior wanting, an expectation. We look at a work of art and hope to meet it with our looking; we already have a notion of something to be had, gotten.”

As for prayer, notes Birkets:

It is… an expression of helplessness, a putting of oneself before a superior force... However the action is defined, it involves a wanting or needing.”

And so for Birkets attention is not a neutral focus of awareness on some object or event:

[it is] A question looking for an answer. There is a big difference between our attempting to pay attention to something and having our attention captured - arrested - by something.”

Like Birkets, this - the capture and arrest of attention - is what interests me.

Between us and success and the capture of attention then, will always lie the potential for people to be indifferent towards what we have made and put out into the world. And the existence of an audience largely indifferent to our efforts and outputs should send a chill down the collective spine of the industries of cultural production.

So how can we make our idea, talent, pitch, or product matter in a crowded marketplace, on a crowded planet? How can we seduce and enthrall? How can we go beyond mere exposure and attention and create real fascination? How can we create demand, rather than have to force our efforts upon people?

The algorithms that weave their way through our lives today help can filter and edit our searches, prioritizing the inevitable deluge of results. They might enable us to wait for consumers to notify the market of their intent to buy, rather than us only relying on pushing stuff out to people regardless of whether they want it or not.

But whatever changes they are wreaking, they have done nothing to render obsolete the old art and magic of entrancing and bewitching.


Sven Birkets, ‘The Art of Attention’, aeon magazine

Joan Vinge, The Snow Queen