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 The new "fracking" rule replaces a draft proposed last year that was withdrawn amid industry complaints that federal regulation could hinder an ongoing boom in natural gas production.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)

“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 the repeated 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 a  few of its features, it doesn’t have to bother scrutinising  it. 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 marketing  are 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 peddles headlines 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

Buonomano D.V, and Mezernich, MM, ‘Cortical plasticity: from synapses to maps’, Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1998;21:149-86.

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

Matt Crenshaw, ‘Is native advertising about to go the way of pop-up ads?’, AdvertisingAge, 04.09.2015

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

Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, John Scriven, ‘Differentiation or Salience’, Journal of Advertising Research, November/December 1997

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Repetitive advertising and the consumer’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 40, No. 6, November/December 2000

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘What Brand Loyalty Can Tell Us’, Admap, October 2004, Issue 454

Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, Rachel Kennedy, Helen Bloom, ‘Brand Advertising As Creative Publicity’, Journal of Advertising Research: Vol. 42, No. 4, July/August 2002

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

Kenneth M Heilman, MD, Stephen E. Nadeau, MD, and David Q. Beversdorf, MD. “Creative Innovation: Possible Brain Mechanisms” Neurocase (2003)

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

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Evidence concerning the importance of perceived brand differentiation, Australasian Marketing Journal 15 92), 2007

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Where knowledge of your brand resides: the Pareto share of brand knowledge’, in Report 44 for Corporate Sponsors, 2008, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Using known patterns in image data to determine brand positioning’, international journal of market research, Vol. 42, No.2, 2000

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

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience’, Marketing Theory, Volume 4(4), 2004

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



  1. allmoderncomms

    This is brilliantly observed.
    Every day in my media strategy world I feel the challenge to get any attention is loaded away from the budget, the idea and the media possibilities that are hot today.

    The sheer unpredictability of anything that used to be a safe bet, or at last risk free just no longer is anymore.

    I do however love the novelty of a new brief.
    Probably for the same reasons as marketing needs novelty.

    Not many of those briefs ever recognise the attention deficit. I wish they did because if you raise it as a communication / media strategist you simply run the risk of overcomplicating.

  2. Ted Florea

    Very well said, Martin.

    As we’ve discussed (and some of that discussion is repeated below), I think it’s long past time to acknowledge that much of what we call innovative technology, immersive entertainment, gaming (both video and casino), and other systems that rely on ever more sophisticated forms of “experience engineering” are all engaged in a form of attention capture, cognitive biasing, behavioral conditioning, and ultimately extractive habit formation – a strip mining of the human psyche and a colonization of human potential through channeling all possible forms of self-awareness into small-print, variable-interest-rate, recurring-subscription, hidden-fee, dopamine-spiking, attention-leaching, habit-forming consumption traps. (That’s what we call a solid business model these days!)

    So that just may be the key question of our time: how do we move from building harmful, casino-like attention traps to more benign or even virtuous ones?

    What we call ‘good work’ in advertising often works on that sort of implicit deal, a form of reciprocity the advertising industry itself forces on naked commerce to protect audiences (and the fragile souls of creatives!) from pure exploitation. We negotiate, navigate, make deals with ourselves, our clients, our audience – I’ll inform or entertain you for 20 seconds and then sell you for 10 seconds before letting you return to the greater distraction we call content – in a form of interruptional apologetics. But as you note, Martin, there’s a nervous tension here at best (creating seamless flow…that you’re totally aware of as a commercial interruption?!) At worst it becomes a kind of ego-defensive hypocrisy (we made you laugh didn’t we…before triggering you to use up the Cheetos in your pantry…)

    What we call ‘ great work,’ on the other hand, seems to rely on a deeper shifting of attention, a shift to more foundational and un-attended-to realities on the other side of the cultural noise you identify. Thinking about what ‘real beauty’ is or what ’throw like a girl’ means or the fact that 2/3 of American boomers will outlive their retirement savings or that gay parents love their children as much as anyone else…these are ’insightful’ moves that imply a world of real people beyond our heads. It’s still heavily streaked with bullshit but the intent feels more grounded, the narrative space ‘closer to the ground,’ less solipsistic, less ad-land virtual, more historically situated and capable of bringing about real change.

    The other option I think we have is to give people their attention back. And this I think is different from giving people their time back. “Time savings” is the core of the “consumer convenience” craze that exploded on the scene in the 1950s…at about the time capitalism stopped supplying demand and began manufacturing demand. And that might be the aha here – I first need to free up people’s time so that I can capture more of it, thin slicing it, creating more “moments of consumption,” faster and faster. Keep walking. Never stop never settle. The power to do more. For those who do. Just do it.

    This time savings is actually the creation of an standing attention pool. I lift you out of cooking your meal so I can cook it for you and sell it back to you. I lift you out of face to face interactions, mediate you, accelerate and Twitterize your points of contact, and free up your attention to create a state in which we are constantly stimulated and constantly bored…in search of even more aggressive forms of attentional capture (like hooking yourself and your bank account up to a slot machine.)

    I think it’s not time, but actually attention we can give back. Crawford in his book points out that the premium lounge at the airport is a TV-music-ad-free-zone, a place where elites (for a price) are allowed to think, allowed to deploy their attention to things of their own willing, not the will of the experience engineers who herd their lesser peers through a frenetic, technicolor airport/mall just on the other side of the sound-proof glass doors.

    Ironically, de-conveniencing things may also be a way to return attention to its proper place. There are few things more rewarding than spending 40 minutes with my wife cooking a Blue Apron meal at home, conveniently delivered and single-served BUT inviting a form of collective, purposeful, focused, creative attention where hands and minds coordinate action effortlessly in the production of a meal that is many times more delicious and rewarding precisely because of our mindful participation in its creation.

    Cause that’s where I think we’re headed culturally. After 30 years of greed is good, trickle down fairytales, extractive convenience, predatory lending, and techno-narcisism, people are just tired (and for the most part more depressed and financially poorer.)

    The brands that either return to them their attention or turn it to socially constructive ends should do well in the coming years.

    But we must be clear eyed about this. When you add up all the “solid business plans” out there based on their true core currency – the ability to aggregate and deploy attention – you notice just how staggeringly oversold this market is. Contract these with business models that create great attentional value at zero marginal cost to the user (like 13 hours of House of Cards arriving unexpectedly on Netflix) and you begin to understand how quickly consumer culture can turn its back on the attention-vampires that engage in high cost, low value attention exchanges. When we ease off on the Facebook, turn off the TV, and maximize our attentional utility the pie will shrink extremely fast, the bots and non-viewable ads will no longer be able to disguise the lack of true audiences for most things, and there will be a great culling.

    Like all mining operations, you can over exploit a natural resource. And when you’ve stripped away all the good will and trust, plundering an attentional commons you never had a title to exploit in the first place… when people turn their attention to the gears behind the spinning slots and shiny screens and one way mirrors and follow the pipes sucking their livelihoods up to the rarefied heights of the 1% (an elite who would NEVER eat the snacks, drink the sodas, take those loans, or make the bets they entice the rest of us to make!)… when the strip mine is mined dry, what will a newly awakened, globally conscious public train its cyclops eye on? When we finally turn away from the manufactured distractions, what will we fix our attention on? And when we truly see all the hands in our pockets, where will we turn our rage?

    This is the question of our time. The villains and rebels of the troubed times to come will be the ones who understand this attentional economy more than others…the experience engineers who will build the empires of the mind underlying the real empires that will emerge in the 21st century.

    Pay attention. And watch this space.

    • Shann

      What is a concern to me now is that if we are to follow the research from Ehrenberg and co. (and I believe they’re right), the advocated cure for “good”, “purposeful” advertising will not easily create more effective marketing, because this is not what drives marketing effectiveness. Competition dictates that like in sports, it’ll be nice to run the race without chemicals, but it will be difficult to win the world championship without a dose of the right stuff in your blood. Unless entire industries are better regulated, consumers will keep navigating the shiny maps we marketers have painted as the territory.

      And let’s make no mistake, your examples Like A Girl or Real Beauty, although I’d argue they owe more of their success to their Ehrenberg-ness than their attention-mindedness, are shiny maps. Sharing real insights about us, yes, but are their undifferentiated products really worth the sentiments? Should a woman really buy Dove or Always to be a better/happier/softer/dryer person? And so, in the dark picture you paint, the question for me quickly becomes, isn’t all this purposeful, ethical advertising a higher level of travesty? A fail-safe simulacra to make sure we catch those who stopped believing the original simulation?

      • Joakim Vars Nilsen

        Yes, mostly. But in the long run it will make the world a better place to live. Looking forward to key-notes talking about how many of the biggest companies in 2010-2015 is still there in 2020. Make no mistake though, this is not companies or marketeers drive. But people. Marketeers are followers of cultural trends.

  3. Lawrence Alexander (@larrysbrain)

    Hasn’t the product always been the ‘problem’ in advertising? The change has not been so much in advertising as it has been in the commissioners of advertising who, in the seemingly limitless pursuit of profit, have turned to creative communicators to increase the perceived perception of their product.

    When a product is good then an advertiser works like an x-ray, shining a light on that product, making the benefits and qualities transparent. But when the product is bad the x-ray is swapped out for some stage-lighting to make that product seem less than shoddy.

    The real tragedy, for me at least, is that the x-ray has been relegated to the archives and the whole industry (commissioners and creators ) spends its time discussing these ‘tricks of the light’ and we seem to have forgotten that their original purpose was to distract from a sub-standard product. It now seems that sub-standard products are the norm.

    Perhaps, as you say, if agencies and ad-men had the courage to dust off their x-rays and challenge the manufacturers, their would be less profit in hollow plastic crap. And maybe if there was less profit, hollow plastic crap like the Kardashians or Pumpkin Spice Lattes would be culled from the cultural production line.

    Here’s to honesty and transparency!

  4. Graham Booth

    Thanks Martin, breathtaking: important and provocative. Thanks also to Ted Florea for his excellent response. I shall be stealing people’s attention as I share this and will spend distraction-free moments contemplating it further.

  5. JC

    “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.”

    Perhaps famous cartoonist Bill Watterson was reading the words of philosopher Matthew Crawford when he came up with this:

    Great read, as always. Thanks!

  6. laguerasa

    Fabulous read. Thank you for stealing my attention for a few moments. I agree that it’s the WHAT we are trying to get people to pay attention to that matters. Here’s towards more meaningful, useful and worthy products. With those, it’s a lot easier to empathize with the consumer and advocate for their attention.

  7. Richard Marecek

    Martin, this is one of your best posts. And one of the best texts I read this year about advertising, marketing or branding. Thank you. And thanks to Ted for a great comment too.

  8. kevinandmclean

    What an excellent article – and some great comments too. Lots of food for thought – attention well rewarded. One quick observation. Agri-business have their attention on the plant, it’s all about higher yields, using more chemicals etc to provide more (edible) ‘stuff’ and make money. Enlightened people say, don’t focus on the plant, focus on the soil. Compare farming and marketing. Old school focuses on the brand. We should focus on the ‘consumer’ (i.e. people).

  9. DMC

    As always a brilliant observation on the context of communications. The work, that works is often the stuff that rewards people for their attention, be it Meerkats, great emotive moments or indeed simplifies the world so that we can retain some of our own precious attention. The point that brands and practitioners need to act ethically is paramount if we want to create our own sustainability model as an industry.