Why Paying Attention Is Getting More Expensive

Thursday Sep 23rd 2010 by Mike Elgan
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Technology is changing how and what we pay attention to, in ways that are dramatically altering business and personal life.

Why did Google use billboard advertising to advertise its advertisements?

The company today put up a billboard in New York City to raise awareness about Google display advertising. The company fears that Madison Avenue and Wall Street think of Google as a search advertising company, and forget the power of Google's image, video and audio ads.

Of course, those ads are obviously not powerful enough — ergo the billboard.

There's nothing new about a company seeking new ways to get the attention of people whose attention is scarce and valuable. That's what all innovation in advertising strives for.

The problem is that while marketers know how valuable the public's attention is, the public apparently does not. We gladly choose "free" online services over paid services supported by advertising.

Initially, this was a rational choice because on many sites, such as Google's advertising-supported Gmail, it's easy enough to ignore the ads.

Here's the problem: marketers are working hard to make ads not only hard to ignore, but impossible to ignore.

A company called Solve Media has come up with an ingenious way to force people to pay attention to advertising.

You're no doubt familiar with CAPTCHA, those online security systems that make you type two weirdly formatted words or a series of letters and numbers twisted and warped almost beyond recognition. You type them into "prove that you're human," as part of a website effort to thwart spambots and automated intrusions.

Well, Solve Media has created a version of CAPTCHA that, instead of nonsense phrases or text strings, makes you type advertising slogans.

Imagine posting something to Facebook. Before the site will post it, you're shown a McDonald's logo. To "prove you're human," you have to type: "I'm Lovin it." Or you'll see a Nike logo and be asked to type, "Just do it."

Or how about an ad for Fox News, and you have to type "Fair and balanced" before Facebook will accept your post.

Not only does Solve Media show you an ad, but makes you actually pay attention to an advertising message as a requirement for using the website. It's impossible to use the system, to gain access to the services that use them, without paying attention to and holding in one's memory marketing messages.

Solve Media is just one of the new ways advertisers force you to pay attention. You've probably noticed a lot more advertising on videos. And the advertisements that cover what you're trying to read online, as well as those video ads, keep getting longer and more intrusive.

Everyone knows the book publishing industry is struggling. That's why the Wall Street Journal warned recently that ads are "coming soon to a book near you."

The article predicted ads in eBooks would become a standard way to support the low cost of book titles.

The ads you see before movies in a theater keep getting longer and more numerous -- and then the movies are packed with product placements. There are ads on the popcorn bucket, beverage cup and on the package that holds the 3D glasses you paid $3 to borrow.

(One woman in China sued a movie theater and a movie distributor for wasting her time with 20 minutes of advertising before a show.)

"Charity panhandlers" increasingly park themselves in front of grocery stores, coffee joints and, for some reason, every Apple Store to guilt customers into saving the whales, supporting gay rights or freeing Tibet.

The trend is on the rise because people are too overwhelmed to give attention freely. It now must be taken from you.

The larger picture is that we losing control over what were allowed to pay attention to. Mental "flow," conversations and online activity are increasingly interrupted and are most valuable resource is being taken from us against our will.

We have only ourselves to blame.

The Cost of Paying Attention

We pay with our attention - we literally pay attention - because we think our attention is less valuable than our money.

The math doesn't add up.

Assuming the monetary value of your attention is equal to your professional rate of pay, marketers are getting your attention for much less than your employers are.

Let me explain by way of a little thought experiment.

According to Salary.com, the median salary for American IT managers is $89,900, which is an hourly rate of $43.22 per hour or 72 cents a minute. If you're an IT manager right in the middle of the national pay spectrum, you can reasonably assume your attention is worth 72 cents per minute.

So if you have to sit through a 15-second ad to watch a video, the video site has gotten you to pay them something worth 18 cents.

OK, stay with me here. Assume you watch an average of one video per day on a site that monetizes with those 15-second ads. That means you'll pay $65.70 per year (in attention) for those "free" ad-supported videos.

You'd probably never pay, say, a whopping $50 per year to watch ad-free videos. But if you did, you'd come out $15.70 ahead. Theoretically. Yet you probably wouldn't pay $20 or even $10 per year for ad-free videos.

I realize that this whole exercise is open to challenge. Of course, if you watch those videos at work, you're still being paid by the company so the video is “free,” etc.

And watching a video ad even with time off doesn't decrease your salary, so you're offering up your unpaid free time, etc.

The point is that your attention is worth something. Yet we act like it's worth nothing. We act like free services are free, rather than paid for with our incredibly valuable attention.

I would argue that your attention is worth more to you even than your company pays you for it.

With the industry growing ever more sophisticated about forcing us to pay attention to advertising, it's time for us to reevaluate the value of our time and attention.

For starters, we might want to become more agreeable to services we can pay money for in exchange for an environment free of advertising.

Your attention is worth something, dammit! The advertising industry knows it. And so should you.

Don't let them just take it from you.

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