The fracking of attention

FILE - In this March 29, 2013 file photo, workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. gas well outside Rifle, in western Colorado. The Obama administration is proposing a rule that would require companies that drill for oil and natural gas on federal lands to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations. The new "fracking" rule replaces a draft proposed last year that was withdrawn amid industry complaints that federal regulation could hinder an ongoing boom in natural gas production. (AP Photo/ Brennan Linsley, File)

FILE - In this March 29, 2013 file photo, workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. gas well outside Rifle, in western Colorado. The Obama administration is proposing a rule that would require companies that drill for oil and natural gas on federal lands to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations. The new "fracking" rule replaces a draft proposed last year that was withdrawn amid industry complaints that federal regulation could hinder an ongoing boom in natural gas production. (AP Photo/ Brennan Linsley, File)

“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are”

Jose Ortega y Gassett

Empires of the mind

If buyers of a brand do not think their brand is different or unique (Ehrenberg)…

And if what matters is the creation of ‘mental presence’ (Moran)…

Or ‘memory structures’ (Sharp)….

And if we define this as “The degree to which a given brand comes to consumers’ minds in the context of a particular purchase occasion or consumption occasion.” (Moran)…

Or as “The probability that a brand will be recalled early in a consumer’s consideration set, under a variety of situations and via a variety of stimuli, to the exclusion of competing brands” (Vieceli and Shaw)…

And if this is dependent on “The quantity (how many) and the quality (how fresh and relevant) of the network of brand information in memory, or the brand’s ‘share of mind’” (Romanuik and Sharp)…

And if the brain is not some rigid filing system in which memories reside as fully formed recordings but is something altogether more dynamic and malleable…

And if our brain’s networks of nerve cells or ‘neurons’ are not fixed entities, but are dynamic and continuously modified by experience…

And if thinking, learning, and behaviour all actually change the brain’s physical structure and organization, rewiring the brain, creating and eliminating new connections between neurons (Buonomano & Mezernich, Heilman & Nadeau, Schacter, Svoboda)…

Then perhaps is is not unreasonable to regard our task as the creation, expansion, maintenance, and defence of mental real estate.

And so perhaps it was Judith Williamson (Marxist and academic) who put it better than any brand expert, when she wrote that advertising’s purpose was to create “empires of the mind.”

And if she did put it better than anyone, then perhaps we struggle and jostle for memory.

And perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so shy about the language and metaphors of conquest and battle that have become so unfashionable and politically incorrect in adland.

And if we think of our task as some kind of (benign) synaptic imperialism, perhaps we’ll think beyond the mere act of contact or engagement, and think about what mental infrastructure we leave behind, maintain, and expand.

So far so good.

Highjack people's cognitive processes, leave some memory traces, reinforce and fresh them repeatedly over time, and (see Binet and Field) extract the financial rewards that lie in so doing.

High-fives and cigars all round.

And yet.

And yet.

(At this point I should note that I have Ted Florea, CSO at PNYC to thank for challenging me to think harder, and to go beyond this convenient and possibly self-serving conclusion).

It's personal

The easy industry rhetoric of interruption, disruption, attention, and engagement disguises the truth that building brands involves a deeply intimate, and personal process.

As the philosopher Matthew Crawford reminds us:

Attention is the thing that is most one’s own.. in a very real sense this determines what is real for us; what is actually present to our consciousness. Appropriations of our attention are then an especially intimate matter.”

The attention we marketers make claims upon is not ours.

Yet the quantity of things that - from the sublime to the banal - compete and jostle to divert and capture this, our most personal of resources expands at a rate that is hard to truly grasp.

As Charles Clavey has put it, reviewing Crawford's book:

From the quotidian - the daily onslaught of emails, texts, tweets, and updates - to the innovative - the use of ambient perfume to market coffee, for instance - the world around us relentlessly colonizes our precious attention.”

Modernity offers us almost no escape from the frackers, and hackers of our attention. And we have only just begun to build the internet of things. 

Inhabiting an environment ever more highly engineered to distract us and to redirect our attention, there remains but one uncolonised and unmonetised part of our lives. As Jonathan Crary puts it:

The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsist as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life – hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship – have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonised and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present… The stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it.”

All aboard the hedonic treadmill

Of course the resource of attention in  our waking hours is not an infinite one.

As the oft-quoted political scientist Herbert Simon predicted, information consumes attention:

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

In the name of both efficiency and survival, we’re adapted to allocate our attention to the new and novel.

We are built to focus our finite mental resources on new sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings and to filter out the rest.  After all, potential threats and new resources are much more likely to be novel than familiar. Simply put, survival prospects are are not good for an animal that is not suspicious of novelty.

However, there is also survival value for the initial caution to fade if the stimulus is actually proves to be non-threatening. What the Polish psychologist Robert Zajonc terms, ‘exposure effect’ occurs because nothing life-threatening follows therepeated exposure of a stimulus. With time and repetition then, this stimulus eventually becomes a safety signal.

Even the most exciting and novel of stimulus with repetition eventually becomes part of life’s wallpaper of familiarity. The author, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman vividly captures how the new and exciting eventually becomes submerged within that taken for granted world:

Novelty will always rivet one’s attention. There is that unique moment where one confronts something new and astonishment begins. Whatever it is, it looms brightly, its edges sharp, its details ravishing... It is a form of revelation, a new sensory litany. But the second time one sees it, the mind says, Oh, that again, another wing walker, another moon landing. And soon, when it’s become commonplace, the brain begins slurring the details, recognising it too quickly, by just afew of its features, it doesn’t have to bother scrutinisingit. Then it is lost to astonishment, no longer an extraordinary instance but a generalised piece of the landscape.”

So essential to any species’ survival is this arousal by and adaptation to novelty that infants less than a day old will stare at a new image for about forty-one seconds - and then tune it out when repeated exposures render it familiar.

To combat what Pinker has termed the 'anaesthetic of familiar', the industries of entertainment and marketingare compelled to keep bringing us new sensations.

This why you get what the Dutch Nobel Prize-winning ethologist and ornithologist Niko Tinbergen dubbed ‘supernormal stimulus’.

It was Tinbergen’s research into how phoney, exaggerated stimulus could appeal to natural instincts far more than the original targets for which they had evolved that led him to coin the term.

In fact Tinbergen’s work demonstrated how dummies could actually exert far more influence than any real, natural stimulus.

For example, he showed how song birds preferred to feed a fake baby bird on a stick if the dummy beak was wider and redder than the chick’s.

He also demonstrated how song birds would abandon their normal, real pale eggs dappled with grey to sit on polka-dot Day-Glo blue dummies. So large they would constantly fall off them.

Of course animals only tend to encounter supernormal stimuli when they are the subject of experiments.

However, we humans can produce our own.

As Deidre Barrett puts it in her examination of the contemporary manifestations of super normal stimuli:

Candy sweeter than any fruit, stuffed animals with eyes wider than any baby, pornography... Instincts arose to call attention to rare necessities; now we let them dictate the manufacture of useless attention-grabbers.”

This is why you get IHOPs Country Fried Steak & Eggs - a 8oz steak with gravy, two eggs, hash browns and two buttermilk pancakes that provides almost an entire day’s worth of calories, two and half days’ of sodium, and up to two days’ of our sugar requirements.

This is why you get social media headlines such as “Disney Princesses Twerking Will Shatter Your Childhood.”

This is why even The Telegraph peddlesheadlines such as “You’re doing your morning routine wrong.”

This is why politics isn’t about policies but about media-baiting soundbites.

This is why you get the grotesquerie that is Donald Trump.

This is why movies for adults look like movies for children.

This is why Kim Kardashian exists.

This is why the language of marketing has infiltrated the common, everyday discourse.

This is why Guy Debord was moved to argue (even before the internet and its consequences) that:

All of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."

And such is the relentless, never-ending parade of attention-hacking novelty, argues Professor Tomlinson, that our contemporary consumer culture is now characterized by an expectation of ‘delivery’, rather than of real satisfaction:

What I mean by this is that there is probably a widespread disbelief in the capacity of consumer goods to provide ultimate satisfaction; but that there is, none the less, an expectation that the capitalist system will– and should- continue to deliver the goods… We expect consumer goods to be functional or novel or amusing.. We expect warranties and after sale service. But in the vast majority of cases these expectations stop short of a conviction that they will, in any profound sense, satisfy our deepest desires. This is not however an obstacle to continued consumption, particularly since it is combined with the happy expectation that something new is always on the way and so it is not necessary – nor does it do – to invest too much into the thing of the moment.”

A question of ethics

So attention is personal - what we attend do defines our reality.

Attention is finite - it is a scarce and thus valuable resource - not just to those who wish to monetise it, but to those to whom is belongs.

And attention is hackable - the world is overpopulated with those skilled in the art of capturing and redirecting attention for their own purposes.

Surely then, we have a responsibility - dare one say, an ethical duty - to the audience.

And to the attention we see to hack.

We enjoy pouring scorn on the reckless bankers and tax evading corporations for behaving as if they operated outside society, with no duty to the broader body politic. But the fact of the matter is that much of ad- and marketing behaves towards people with little more sense of duty, obligation, and responsibility than these popular pariahs.

So let us start with recalling the words of Howard Gossage:

Our first duty is not the the old sales curve, it is to the audience. It is not simply right to treat the audience in the fashion. If we can’t look at it from a broad, ethical point of view, then we ought to look at it personally, to please ourselves - we are all members of the audience too, we are bored or irritated right along with everybody else.”

And yet judging by its output, much of ad- and marketingland holds its audience in something approaching contempt.

With all the grace and socials skills of a drunken boor gatecrashing a wedding party, most advertising makes no concession to fact that it is interrupting something that people have chosen, or opted-in to watch. In return for absolutely nothing, it loudly demands our attention. It’s the marketing equivalent of being robbed at gunpoint.

If you think contempt is too strong a word, just listen to the stream of snark and condescension muttered towards those on the other side of the focus group mirror and upon whose interest and custom our livelihoods and lifestyles ultimately depend.

If you still think contempt is too strong a word, just look at the imagination and empathy free wasteland that is called marketing to women. The best we believe we can do for women through advertising is ‘empower’ them. Because unlike men, they we’re weak, down-trodden, esteem-challenged creatures, who aren’t yet ready for some jolly good entertainment. That’s for men. Who are empowered.

The fact of the matter is that no insight department or process can be a substitute for genuine, human empathy. And if we must turn to them for a more generous perspective on those we serve, we are probably more fucked than we think we are.


The implications of our First Duty run far and wide.

Tom Goodwin rightly rails against the digital landfill that is thrown our way - and all because in their myopic quest to grab our attention, marketers choose to ignore the truth that the foundation of advertising’s contract with the consumer is value exchange:

I search on Google and find myself on nasty sites like or second tier media websites designed only around selling my eyeballs to advertisers. I feel violated. I visit the BBC News site and find myself unable to see any video news without being forced to waste 30 seconds watching a crudely cut down TV ad. Prerolls ads insert themselves mid way in articles… Pages take forever to load swamped by cookies and content I don't need. I’m led to articles on websites where I’m “welcomed” by welcome screens and where pop ups increasingly barge their way past browser settings.. its a disgrace for people who now face their attention being stolen, their data plans killed and their time wasted for things they don't want.”

If we were to hold ourselves to that First Duty, we would cease the shameless, intrusive, low-value hijacking of attention.

If we were to hold ourselves to that Duty,we would play it straight with consumers, stop passing off self-interest as altruistic, impartial information or entertainment, and stop kidding ourselves as to ethical integrity of native advertising. For its essence is to make marketing content appear similar to the publication's look and feel. 

And yet we insist on kidding ourselves that we are not in the business of camouflaging our attention hacking. Here, for example, is Advertising Age:

When executed well, with time and care put into ensuring the content is in the right tone and has the right message, native formats blend into vertical streams in a manner that's much less disruptive to users (while still marked as "sponsored" so as not to be deceptive).”

Only an industry breathing in the fumes of its own inward-looking and self-regarding rhetoric, uncaring about its duty to the audience could with a straight face suggest that content can both blend in and be clearly marked.

Beyond the sizzle

Better targeted, more thoughtfully personalised, more context-responsive content may help ameliorate some of the worst excesses of thoughtless attention hacking.

But perhaps we can and should go further than all this.

Perhaps we should do more than merely engage in a never-ending arms race in the pursuit of people's attention.

Perhaps rather than add ever more to the unending torrent of cultural spam that we delight in characterising as ‘content’, we should turn our own attention to things of real, enduring substance.

Indeed, perhaps we should stop asking more of people’ attention, and find ways of giving it back to them.

Rather than use the wonders of technology and digital connections to hack ever further at consumers’ attention and giving them ever more things to do, see, click on, download, read, scroll through, interact with, engage with, with ever more competitions to participate in, in-store QR codes to scan, long-from content films to endure, pre-roll advertising to suffer, quizzes to answer, ad campaigns to upload their faces into, and content to co-create… perhaps we should actually find ways of helping consumers save time, and preserve their cognitive resources.

People are working harder. They’re saddled with debt. Or unable to acquire the debt to give them the head start they need. They’re facing uncertain futures. Many are having their futures disrupted into oblivion. And everywhere are the agents of attention hacking.

For the most part they don’t need advertising. What they need is better products. And easier, more enjoyable lives. 

So perhaps more of us should refuse to take advantage of human cognition's Achilles heel, and cease fuelling the toxic arms race of novelty for the sake of novelty.

We can rail all we want about the polluting effects of marketing’s more egregious attention robbing, but when much of it is merely in the service of polluting products, it’s tantamount to complaining about about the quality of the sizzle, and ignoring the quality of the actual sausage.

I leave the last words to Helen Edwards:

What about customer service? You ring your own call centre for the first time in years, navigate the endless bifurcations and hang on limply, listening to mindless music just like your consumers do. What about product quality? You look afresh at your packs, and wonder why they can’t be more user-friendly ; you remind yourself of those little formulation compromises.What about fair trading and sustainable sourcing? Don’t even go there.

Suddenly, it all becomes clear. Yes, the fourth wave of content marketing has arrived, but consumers aren’t waving, they’re drowning in an ocean of branded pap, and the interactive lifeline they really want to be thrown is the one whereby companies promptly answer calls in person, keep their promises, make better products and contribute to a better world.

Improve the substance. That’s how competition really works, and it’s what you’ve always known deep down. It will mean big investment, though: in R&D, in a new call centre, in a greener supply chain and in ethnographic research. How do you get that past the board?

Frankly, you have no idea how to solve that one. But at least you have now defined the problem.”

The biggest challenge facing marketing is not how we hack people’s attention.

It’s what we direct that attention towards.



Diane Ackerman, A Natural History Of The Senses

Deirdre Barrett, Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

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Charles Clavey, ‘ Are you out of your mind?’, LA Review Of Books, 05.10.20

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction

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Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

Guy Debord, The Society Of The Spectacle

Helen Edwards, ‘Don’t drown your consumers in an ocean of branded pap’, Marketing, 05.11.2014

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Tom Goodwin, ‘I miss the days of expensive advertising’, 13.08.2015

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William Moran, ‘Brand Presence And The Perceptual Frame’, Journal of Advertising Research, October/November 1990

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Jenni Romanuik, Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Do brands lack personality?’ Report 14 for Corporate Members, March 2003

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Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory

Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know

John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy

Julian Viecli, Robin Shaw, ‘A Model of Brand Salience’, in Mark Uncles, ed. Perspectives on Brand Management, 2011

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising