Attention

A much smarter man than me would have constructed this with exhaustive research and extensive footnoting, and done all this as perhaps a sort of essay on the subject in philosophy class, instead of what I did, which was to do a bunch of reading thne set aside the topic for an easier one that complained about videogames. Instead you have me, running through a very surface-level skim of what Facebook and advertising should mean, to you, as a consumer of web content.

The great fear of the moral guardians as people grew up in the post-Reagan era was that we human beings, raised with television all around us, just like them, would wind up completely dominated by massive, obtrusive advertising. We’d live a branded life, we’d have no idea or way to handle the world outside of the advertisement before us. Slaves to the whims of corporate entities that sought to manipulate our gooey, impressionable brains. Open your wallets and hail the symbol, right? Essentially, the fear was that advertisement as part of our lives would remove our free will.

That’s the fear.

A little experiment for you, if you’d be so kind. Take a normal trip in your life, like a simple little journey to the store, or a walk to the park and back. Not only is that good exercise, but it puts you out in the physical space of your world, of your culture. This time, note the advertising around you. Count how many times you see a brand, how many times you see an advertisement. I did this on a trip to my university classes of a morning, and I counted around a hundred and thirty on a twenty minute bus trip. T-shirts, hats, banners on walls, papers taped to poles – and I’m not the sharpest-eyed guy. I know there were almost definitely ones I missed.

You are surrounded by advertising.

It does almost nothing.

What most people didn’t realise was that advertising is just like birdsong and tree leaf patterns. We are amazing at ignoring the world. We are breathtakingly good at the simple task of taking everything around us that is vying for our attention and telling about 99% of it to get stuffed. We’re so good at this that noticing more things is actually called Attention Deficit. People outside of advertising complain about ads being dominating, ads overtaking the world, ads with enormous influence…

… and people inside advertising are crapping their pants trying to work out how to make it work. Advertisers are struggling in this modern age to successfully tap their own industry, which is an outgrowth of marketing. Ignoring the foulness of what marketing is, advertising is a pretty random affair. Sometimes, something will go viral and receive a huge amount of attention; that doesn’t, however, necessarily translate to a huge amount of increased revenue.

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” it’s said. It’s said, primarily, by people justifying doing something stupid, reckless, and thoughtless, which will generate bad publicity. That’s not true. It’s not true that there’s ‘no such thing.’ That sentence almost always really means ‘What we’re doing is not reprehensible to a sufficiently large portion of the population.’ There are some areas where there’s a pendulum swing, but for the most part, there is, in fact, bad publicity. Want an example? The KKK had its back broken by being made fun of by schoolchildren playing Superman.

In essence, advertisers, right now, can generate tons of advertising, but they can’t generate tons of impact. They can gather tons of data, they can target you with advertising, they can give you more specific ads than ever before, and you just ignore it.

This is, to the mind of the advertiser, something of a problem.

Bear this all in mind. We’re going to come back to this soon.

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