bit.depth

Could I please have your attention? asks Jonathon Delacour

“Attention can ground an economy because it is a fundamental human desire and is intrinsically, unavoidably scarce.”
Michael H. Goldhaber,
“Attention Shoppers!” Wired, Dec 1997

When Wired first came out a few years ago, I read it from cover to cover. Nowadays I still buy the magazine each month but no longer feel compelled to read every word: my attention has shifted elsewhere. Still, every now and again, concealed amongst the lifestyle advertising and self-referential American bullshit, there’s an occasional gem. The December 1997 issue contained such a piece, by Michael H. Goldhaber, about the attention economy.

Goldhaber’s central thesis is that in a world of material abundance (defined as “the US, Western Europe, Japan, and a growing list of other places”), attention is the only truly scarce commodity. For all our vaunted ability to multi-task (for example simultaneously eat dinner, watch TV, and talk on the phone with a friend), it is close to impossible to devote what we might call “quality attention” to more than a single activity at once. It’s this kind of attention that Goldhaber sees (correctly) as becoming increasingly valuable.

In Goldhaber’s, as in any economic model, there are haves and have-nots: stars who attract attention and fans who pay attention. But, it’s a little more complex than that. Because cyberspace is so huge, anyone with the requisite drive and tenacity can now compete for a global audience. On the other hand, this vast pool will throw up increasing numbers of players, ensuring that the competition becomes even more ruthless.

In the world of old media (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines), this relentless drive for attention is played out every minute of the day. A celebrity profile in a weekly magazine: “When she’s not fighting off an alien with its tail between her legs, Sigourney Weaver is at home fighting dust. She talks to Marianne MacDonald about housework, her husband and her height”. New Idea, you might think, or Who Weekly. But no, it’s the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine of January 3.

You don’t have to read past the first couple of paragraphs to figure out that the “profile” is just an extended advertisement for Ms Weaver’s new movie, Alien Resurrection. Actually she has two new movies (The Ice Storm is the other). “But”, writes the journalist, “we are here to talk about Alien”. Just so. And, once you’ve read this puff piece, and been subjected to the relentless barrage of newspaper and television commercials, there’ll be a TV special (The Making of Alien Resurrection), appearances on the Today and Midday shows, newspaper reviews, radio interviews, and probably a segment on The Movie Show, all telling stories about Sigourney Weaver and Alien Resurrection.

The line between news, opinion, and advertising is now so blurred that almost no media coverage is untainted by marketing imperatives. Marketing is concerned solely with creating and keeping customers. In other words, getting and holding our attention (or loyalty, which is essentially the same thing). If we accept Goldhaber’s proposition that attention is scarce and therefore valuable, then attracting attention is difficult and frequently expensive. So it’s hardly accidental that the marketing budget for a movie like Alien Resurrection usually equals and occasionally exceeds the production budget, the money it took to actually make the film.

The fourth in the Alien series, Alien Resurrection —despite its higher production and marketing costs—will inevitably return a far greater profit than Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Why? Primarily because of branding. Both movies offer the Sigourney Weaver brand but, despite the success of Sense and Sensibility, the Ang Lee brand can’t compete against the combined weight of the Alien, Winona Ryder, and Ripley brands. In fact, I suspect that the Ripley character (a tough, tenacious, resourceful, courageous woman) has probably done more for feminism than Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem together (and they comprise three formidable feminist brands).

Nothing attracts and holds attention like a successful brand. Coke, Pepsi, Madonna, Nike, Picasso, Adidas, Mercedes, Miles Davis, BMW, McDonalds, Louise Bourgeois, KFC, Microsoft, Salman Rushdie, Intel, Sony, Peter Greenaway, Arnotts, Claudia Schiffer, Vegemite, Grange, Cathy Freeman, IKEA, Jane Campion, Peter Carey, Russell Crowe, Kylie Minogue, Susan Norrie, Mike Parr, Bettina Arndt, McKenzie Wark…Faced with too much information competing for our scarce attention, we rely on the safety of a known and trusted brand.

There’s an old line that the reason academic politics is so bitterly contested is because the stakes are so small. I used to think that was true and that the art world was similar too. But the internecine warfare between artists or academics (or movie stars) is simply the Cola war writ large. The stakes are huge.

Long term success in any endeavour means getting and holding an audience’s attention. The key to success for individuals—as for cola manufacturers and movie producers—will increasingly depend on building a successful brand. Whether corporate or personal, successful brand building depends on telling the right story, for, as marketing analyst Michael Moon says: “Every brand tells a story, but not every story creates a brand”. But let’s leave storytelling for next time…

RealTime issue #23 Feb-March 1998 pg. 21

© Jonathon Delacour; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1998