Paying (for) attention

My piece in yesterday’s Fin was on the attention economy, and, in particular, the kerfuffle over Holden’s use of a blimp to advertise at sporting events sponsored by Ford.

Whose attention is it anyway? That’s the question at the centre of the dispute between Holden and Ford, over the 54m blimp Holden is flying over sporting grounds at events sponsored by Ford. On a larger scale, the same question is the central focus of analysis of what’s been called the ‘attention economy’.

We’re used to the idea that we live in an information economy, but the amount of information and, for that matter, misinformation, now in existence is far greater than the capacity of anyone to absorb in a lifetime. This is most obvious in relation to the Internet, where the attention economy was first discussed, but it has been true ever since the development of mass communication technologies around the beginning of the 20th century.

On the one hand, there is far more information of interest, including TV and radio shows and movies, newspapers books and magazines, sporting events and cultural performances than we can ever possibly absorb. Thus, we need to allocate our own attention and try to economise on attention by finding reliable guides to interesting materials.

On the other hand, many of us have information we would like others to pay attention to. This is obviously true for those of us with products, services or ideas to promote, but all kinds of people have something they would like others to listen to or look at. To attract attention, it is necessary to present your information in an appealing or intriguing fashion, or bundle it up with some valuable good or service. The most obvious example is advertising, usually packaged with newspapers, magazines or electronic media.

As the value of attention has increased, attempts to grab it without paying have become more vigorous, and have attracted correspondingly vigorous resistance. It’s not that long ago that an unexpected phone call or email promoting some good or service might have been a mildly interesting diversion from the daily routine. But by the late 20th century, spammers and unsolicited telemarketers were recognised pests. Now spammers are criminals, and telemarketers are tightly restricted.

Technology has created problems on the other side of the market. The implicit contract associated with commercial television has always been that, if you watch the program you watch the ads that pay for it as well. Attempts to push this too far, such as the US executive who claimed that viewers who went to the toilet during the ad break were in breach of contract, have been rightly met with derision. And, if the ads go on too long, viewers may change channels, or even to for a walk. Still the basic idea of bundling ads with shows viewers want to watch is clear.

The bundling model was robust enough to stand up to the VCR, despite the potential it offered for zapping ads. It remains to be seen whether it will accommodate more sophisticated recording technologies such as TiVo, the programmable digital video recorder.

Once we understand the information economy, it’s easy to see that the attention of sports fans doesn’t belong either to Holden or Ford, but to the fans themselves. In buying a ticket to an event sponsored by Ford, the audience is trading some of its attention, paid to the ads around the ground, or worn by the players, in return for a lower price of admission.

By capturing the fans attention without paying, Holden is reducing the value of attention to its owners, and thereby making them worse off. They are in the same fundamental position as spammers and telemarketers.

The case of so-called ‘guerilla’ or ‘viral’ marketers is even worse. As the name implies, guerilla marketing efforts are based on disguise, with seemingly ordinary social contacts being used to market goods or services, ideally in such a way that the target audience is left unaware they have been marketed to. This kind of activity is criminal when it is used to tout stocks, but it’s no better, in ethical terms, when it’s used to sell goods or services.

As the value of attention is recognised, marketing methods that have long been accepted will be reconsidered. An obvious example is billboards aimed at motorists. Around the world, both private road owners and public authorities are asserting their right to control advertising directed at their customers, both on safety and economic grounds.

The central rule of the attention economy is simple: if those promoting products or ideas want us to pay attention to them, they should be prepared to pay in return, either in cash or in useful information.

18 thoughts on “Paying (for) attention

  1. But what happens when the attention grabbing device itself is seen as being of value? The viral Carlton Draught “Big Ad” was a case in point. Viewers would willingly download and watch it and send the link to others. At that point, the viral is, to the consumer, a free (or very low cost, depending on ISP rates) good.

    Or is good marketing “useful information”?

  2. An interesting post, but I have some reservations. I tend to agree that Holden is effectively ‘spamming’ (wasn’t it Toyota at the AFL?) and as their blimp is here today plugging overhead (noise, visual distraction, engines adding to global warming) they are getting away with the environment – free of charge. At least a carbon tax should apply, heavily weighted for any semi stationary positioning as at the MCG.
    I have to query your assertion that ad revenue reduces ticket prices. Any proof? Also your assertion that Holden are de-valuing the attention of Holden owners? or is it the MCG owners. In other words are you suggesting that the MCG should rather be protesting because their venue’s ad value is being sabotaged?

  3. The MCG should be protesting, but of course the costs are mostly passed on to the punters.

  4. This amazing article had the writer scrambling to recall Leibniz, Locke, Descartes,
    Berkeley and the like; not to mention classical Greeks such as Plato, speculating on origins, location, and intentionality of sense, perception, consciousness and reason. In an oblique and almost-relevant metaphysical way this proves oddly relevant to John’s post, since we are discussing the end of cultural memory suffocated within a prison of underdeterminate “becoming”/being”.
    Personally, if I were a Ford person, I would simply acquire surreptitiously the services of a good rifle shot, or even a local lad with a good shanghai.
    Apart from the above, I would suggest the obvious and propose that this ( any) advertising be banned for aesthetic reasons. I say this because if we advocate the banning of advertising because it is bullshit, we will only be beseiged by neo libs telling us about market forces and how marvellus and necessary all the putrid lies are..
    I wonder how much money could be spent on the global dirt-poor, if the money used for advertising was directed toward alleviating their sufferings, instead?

  5. I think you’re almost 100% wrong on this.

    As 2 tanners points out, viral marketing works because people want to talk about it. It is the precise opposite of an annoying telemarketing call.

    And Ford doesn’t buy punters’ attention. They buy the rights to promote themselves in certain ways at football matches, which they hope is a proxy for attention. If Holden can legally fly their blimp overhead, Ford should take that into account when deciding how good that proxy is, and how much to pay for their promotion rights.

    Just because Ford bought the right to stick their name on some clothing and billboards, doesn’t mean they bought the right to prevent everyone else from promoting Holden. If they did, they could tell every spectator wearing a Holden jacket to to take it off, and replace it with a Ford jacket. I’d like to see them try that 🙂

    Either the AFL (or MCG) own the airspace rights over the stadium during events or they don’t. If they do, then they can sell the rights to the highest bidder, just like they do with all other advertising space they own. If they don’t, they should talk to the lawmakers. I wish them luck – getting private control over airspace is (rightly) a very difficult thing to do.

  6. I offer two possible explainations.

    1) The winners at the top of the system use their resources to maintain the status quo.

    In the US case the winners (ie the super rich) are able to effectively buy the will of the people through good quality marketing and a party to run it through. I think modern marketing is good enough to acheive this.

    In the case of soccer the super clubs at the top of the system are the big winners, and they like the system the way it is. I suspect that in other sporting codes a larger share of the winnings go to the association running the league itself rather than the clubs. The association has a greater incentive to keep the competition even as makes the sport more interesting, and hence more profitable.

    Perhaps this situation is a result of the lack of competition between different sporting codes. Soccer is usually the dominant or even overwhelming sport in Europe. But in the US and Australia there are a variety of professional sporting codes which must compete with each other for market share. This gives the sports more incentive to put the interests of the sport as a whole, which includes competetiveness, ahead of the interests of the dominant clubs.

    2) Collective expectations
    In both the case of the average American worker and the average soccer fan of a middling club neither really believes things can be much better, so they don’t take action to bring it about.

  7. I think you’re almost 100% wrong on this.

    Allow me to rephrase that in less confrontational language: I disagree almost 100% with you on this.

  8. As 2 tanners observed at the end of his comments, if you make something that’s obviously an ad, but people nonetheless want to distribute it, then it’s useful information. But this (from Wikipedia) is the kind of thing I was talking about, as the context made clear, “Viral marketing sometimes refers to Internet-based stealth marketing campaigns, including the use of blogs, seemingly amateur web sites, and other forms of astroturfing, designed to create word of mouth for a new product or service”

  9. The new owners of a blogging site called LiveJournal have recently introduced “sponsored communities” – in the face of massive protest from users who had previously formed an attachment to the ad-free space. The first such “sponsored community” was for the film Science of Sleep. Apparently it has attracted some discussion among those for whom such advertising constitutes “useful information”.

    The question most often raised by the protesters is whether, over the long-run, they are going to continue to be able to live in an ad-free environment – or one in which you have to make an active choice to view the ads (like switching from the ABC to a commercial channel). The company says yes, but logic says no. Six Apart, the new owner, is not a public body. What they purchased was a system that provided a free service as well as a paid one. Now free users are obliged to view ads, while paid users can still avoid them, though they rightly suspect that in future the cost of avoiding ads will rise. Just as the cost of avoiding spam emails and blog comments has risen (viz JQ’s current difficulties with his anti-spam software).

    Galbraith anyone?

  10. As Peter Tuck suggested, Toyota was the victim of the GM blimp at the AFL Grand Final, so can I suggest, with tongue firmly in cheek, John that you haven’t been paying attention at AFL matches (nor dutifully purchasing and reading your AFL “Record”).
    As I was at the MCG, the blimp was at its most intrusive during two drifts low over the ground – while the match was in progress, iirc – when it actually briefly cast a shadow over much of the ground, which reminded me of a total eclipse of the sun, albeit one over in an instant.

  11. To clarify, my impression is that Ford sponsors the cricket, and has demanded that Holden should not fly the blimp over the MCG during matches this summer. Can anyone confirm?

  12. I looked at the reports of the progress of the blimp and assumed that because the airspace above the MCG is public apart from the requirements of safe aviation practice, that this was a legitimate presentation of advertising material. In my blog isite I have looked at a couple of online places where advertising has been placed in far closer context to the recipient’s’s field of view.
    I strongly suspect, however, that because of the potential for an aircraft to distribute noxious material to the gathered audience at stadia such as the MCG, some change to the air traffic regulations may become necessary.

  13. I still don’t agree John. What makes Viral marketing “viral” (viral as in self-propagating) is that it is interesting.

    The Coke Zero blog was another example.

    “Viral marketing sometimes refers to Internet-based stealth marketing campaigns, including the use of blogs, seemingly amateur web sites, and other forms of astroturfing, designed to create word of mouth for a new product or service”

    Which adequately describes campaigns like Coke Zero, Subservient Chicken, Lonelygirl15, Blair Witch Project etc.

    You think this behaviour is criminal, everyone else feels it is simply advertising that is enjoyable.

    It takes a special kind of person (specifically one opposed to commerce on principle) to hate all advertising. You can’t not like ads like Carlton Draught’s “Flashdance” or Cougar’s “Barry Dawson: THE COUGAR” even if you don’t like the product.

    There used to be a series of Television shows called “TVs best ads” or something which rated very well, and were nothing more than a collection of Television ads from all the world. So the fact is that some advertising is at least as entertaining as the programs it interrupts. In some cases much more so.

  14. I like some ads, Yobbo, including the Big Beer Ad. But, unlike you apparently, I don’t like being conned. People who took Lonelygirl15 at face value were pretty annoyed when they found out she was a studio product, and the same is true for me when I find a web site that looks interesting at first, but turns out to be a spamblog or Astroturf site.

    In any case, feel free to substitute “stealth” for “viral” if it makes the argument clearer.

  15. jq: Even the people who took lonelygirl15 seriously still have something to talk about.

    I don’t see how it’s much different than any other TV drama. Or do people get upset when they realise that the Gilmore Girls aren’t real people too?

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