Attention: Nothing Else Matters

There is a limited amount of human attention in the world. Every day the same amount of attention is created (number of people multiplied by number of conscious hours). Everything meaningful in life requires attention. Laughing, crying, learning. Everything. And we humans consider our attention precious, because we know we have a finite amount of it.

Yet somehow the advertising industry developed the notion that it either A) does not need people’s attention, or B) can simply create more attention. Both assumptions are obviously ridiculous, but in order to keep passing money around, the industry seems to have just taken the ostrich-head-in-sand approach to the obvious absurdity.

There are many numbers out there that suggest people see vastly more ads than they used to a few decades ago. The estimates vary, suggesting that the average person sees 3,000 to 5,000 ads a day now. Some that aren’t even worth the time to cite claim even more. How can rational people believe these numbers? And even on the off chance that someone was at least in legitimate proximity to this many advertisements, how could we say all those ads got real attention? You know, attention -- that thing that is required for any kind of success in every corner of our entire industry?



That’s why stats are incredibly misleading, and show a big misunderstanding of the importance of attention. True, the number of ads that a human has the potential to be exposed to has definitely increased -- thanks to new media like digital, more TV commercials, and out-of-home. But that doesn’t expand the capacity of human attention, and it doesn’t change the hours in a day. And now we’re headed into Q4, when (as if by a holiday miracle!) the ad industry will be provided more “impressions” than in any other quarter.

Why? Because in Q4, people have more time to pay attention to ads? Nope. Because in Q4 there are 25 hours in a day? Nope. It’s more likely because in Q4, thanks to the impending holiday season, there is more money in advertising -- so the Internet will just create more impressions to try to get all that money.

The number of ads that people genuinely see hasn’t increased all that much over the past few decades. Because you aren’t really “seeing” an ad, or at least it makes no difference that you’ve seen it, if it doesn’t register a reaction. It doesn’t create engagement.

Which is kind of funny, because at events like the MOAT I/O Summit earlier this week, the concept of “attention” is top-of-mind -- as it should be. From the fact that we are stuffing websites full of as many ads as possible, to the growing glut of content that we’ll never make the time to watch (in spite of how good so much of it is), it’s as though we as an industry are challenging ourselves to make it as hard as possible to capture real human attention.

Why are we screwing up so badly? Attention is the currency of advertising and always has been. You’d think the industry would understand it better by now.

14 comments about "Attention: Nothing Else Matters".
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  1. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, September 18, 2014 at 12:04 p.m.

    Not me editorializing as editor, just me commenting as a reader of Joe Marchese's columns: you've got my attention.

  2. Joe Marchese from true[X], September 18, 2014 at 12:04 p.m.

    And that is not something I take lightly. Thanks for you time Joe!

  3. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, September 18, 2014 at 12:09 p.m.

    Thanks much, Joe, for vigorously pointing out what should be painfully obvious: The human capacity for providing attention is finite. Odd, but it seems that the best lessons we learn today are increasingly those that are, or should be, the most obvious. Is it possible that this phenomenon is itself the consequence of the bulldozing explosion of ads, impressions, and content we experience minute-by-minute, indeed second-by-second? I think that's now what's called a rhetorical question.

  4. jack Brown from BDAI, September 18, 2014 at 2:26 p.m.

    Everyone's attention is prioritized. People focus their attention primarily on things that have value for them personally. Intensity of attention (prioritization) is driven by their individual sense of value.
    You not "screwing up" the system is screwed up because your view of the interaction between people and display AD's is incomplete. And as long as the powers that be chase the money not the truth you will only have a cluttered partial view.
    Transparency is the key missing element of your view. Transparency enables you to see where the Ad is displayed, how long it is visible, to whom it is displayed, in short the entire customer journey to conversion. The importance of Transparency, mid campaign evaluation of : Placement, Who's exposed to it & action taken, Design, Shape, Size, Call to action. All of which when measured in Real Time can be fine tuned throughout the campaign optimizing the viewers attention.
    BDAI Provides Transparency at the rate of 40 million to 16 billion impressions daily.
    Measures visibility and contact frequency, by determining the time advertising spaces are viewable on a page and in an (active) screen in seconds.
    Contact frequency and reach in view. Real-time data on actual reach (in %), selectivity index and selected profile of targeted audience.
    Realistic insight into the conversion paths and actual attribution toward sales.
    All data is consolidated and summarized into one easy-to-use dashboard. With real-time overview and insights into your digital campaign performance.

  5. Joe Marchese from true[X], September 18, 2014 at 2:32 p.m.

    Jack - Not sure I understand you response (I all for transparency). That said, love you enthusiasm. Keep reading!

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 18, 2014 at 8:12 p.m.

    Every second is not free. Every second one pays attention to something, that is paying one second of one's finite life to it. The screw up as you put it lies in profit. The more you sell the same thing over and over again, the more profit there is on it until the cards all fall down e.g. The Tulip Depression of the 1600's and our depressions/recessions. The reselling of attention seconds may take longer to accept as impossible.

  7. Matthew Ford from SwipeAds, September 19, 2014 at 12:49 a.m.

    Anyone interested in how to capture and guarantee attention should see what the company SwipeAds is doing with its product FunCaptcha. It takes a whole new approach to guaranteeing that only true human attention is paid for, without any voodoo black boxes that assure "viewability". You can see exactly how it works-- so simple. The ad is served in the context of the "CAPTCHA" already in wide use on the net to separate humans from bots.

  8. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 19, 2014 at 9:12 a.m.

    Interesting, Joe, especially as my company is about to put out a report on how many ads a typical adult is really exposed to, how this has tracked over many decades and an estimate of how many ads we actually pay attention to. Contrary to the absurd figures quoted by some sources, while the number of TV ads has rises, thanks to heightened commercial loads and the use of shorter messages, this has been largely offset by declines in print ad exposure, especially via newspapers. As a result, the number of ads we might have paid attention to, counting all of the major media, including the Internet, has not reached astronomical proportions. Moreover, even when we have an opportunity to see or hear an ad message, we are quite selective about which ones we bother with. More on this shortly.

  9. Seth Ulinski from, September 19, 2014 at 9:35 a.m.

    Enjoyed the write-up, and your comments were entertaining. On that note, how about we ditch "viewability" for "attentionability?" I bet we can create a new Ad Tech segment!

  10. Joe Marchese from true[X], September 19, 2014 at 9:47 a.m.

    Ed - Looking forward to seeing this study. Send it our way!

  11. Joe Marchese from true[X], September 19, 2014 at 9:48 a.m.

    Seth - Love to see it...

  12. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 19, 2014 at 11:15 a.m.

    Actually, we sell this and other reports, but we will issue a press release on some of the findings shortly.

  13. Seth Ulinski from, September 19, 2014 at 11:17 a.m.

    Joe- working on related patents now. On a side note, didn't know you were a Metallica fan, great title.

  14. Joe Marchese from true[X], September 19, 2014 at 12:24 p.m.

    Ha. Didn't know the title had a Metallica connection.

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