Advertising in the Cyberspace Era:

Going With the Flow Towards the Attention Economy






by Michael H. Goldhaber

An addendum (November 13, 1996)to the Aspen Institute Seminar: The Future of Advertising: New Approaches to the Attention Economy (October 9-11,1996)

(©1996, Michael H. Goldhaber)

Define it this way: Advertising is the attempt to gain attention and focus it on some kind of purchasable thing, so as to generate a desire to buy, thereby pulling in money for the sponsor.

Or define it this way: Advertising is an attempt to overcome the scarcity of attention.

The two definitions overlap, and in the world of material things and money, for commercial purposes they overlap a great deal.

In cyberspace, however, things are different. The second definition is of great importance, since the Web in all its elaborations holds out the promise of nearly infinite attention for anyone who finds some direct or sneaky way to snare it. And once you have enough attention, you can get anything else you need. So the cyberspace era will lead to the flowering and development of advertising skills as never before. But advertising primarily for oneself, or for some idea, sentiment, worry that one cherishes or is obsessed by, far more often than for a product, a company or a brand. Such advertising, most often, will not be intended to improve sales or directly to improve the flow of money to oneself at all.

Now return to the first definition -- advertising as part of marketing products so as to sell them for money. Four observations: first, this kind of advertising has to compete with the other kind. The totality of attention available from everyone, in all channels and for all purposes is limited. If cyberspace rises in importance, if more people spend more of their time staring through computer screens into this new domain, then they are not in stores, they are not watching commercial TV, they are not reading advertising inserts in magazines or newspapers -- despite the fact that all of these are rushing to be accessible through cyberspace itself. .

Second, in this context, even that advertising that fits under the first definition, when it does get attention, becomes more and more a vehicle for advertising for oneself. On the Web, no one need be behind the scenes, and every magazine, newspaper, TV channel, and catalogue or store inventory list (with display) will be incorporated into the Web quite soon. Everyone involved with an ad can be credited or discovered, if only by rumor, but rumor spread through the same medium that the ad appears in, since cyberspace acts -- and will act even more fully -- as one single, unified medium. Rumors can include pictures, bios, even video interviews, as easily as not. "Why did you choose this way to make the pitch?" "How did you come up with this idea?" "How did you feel when they approached you to be associated with that sort of product?" The more an ad grabs attention, the more it is going to raise those questions, and the more it becomes an advertisement for the people behind it as much as the thing, service, or whatever it is ostensibly about.

That new transparency of advertising (with the background as clear as the foreground) will take shape in a period of heightened turmoil within the old advertising industry itself -- a turmoil itself the result of the growing competition for attention through cyberspace and other unconventional media. Everyone involved will thus have good reason to use whatever ad- making prowess she has as the means for gaining the personal stardom that can permit her to ride out the storm as long as possible. Thus, even within the conventional form, there will be relentless pressure to relegate products and brands as far from the center of attention as one can possibly get away with. And that will be the most successful advertising.

Third: consider the nature of industrial products themselves, as contrasted with the types of entities that can be directly distributed over cyberspace, often at virtually no price. (Competition, coupled with infinite alternative channels, mean that the only stable money price for something transmissible over the web is zero.) We value material things for three broad reasons -- their functionality, their sensory properties,and their resulting abilities (as in the case of stylish clothes or cars ) to help us get attention. On all three grounds, however they will meet ever stiffer competition from what can flow through cyberspace, as software in its various guises proliferates -- as virtual reality keeps crossing new thresholds of sensory counterfeit, as the connectivity of cyberspace affords new modalities of reaching for stardom -- until the balance pivots, and actual things are understood, if at all, merely as variants on cyber- entities.

In other words, advertising will ultimately be turned around: products will eventually be merely freebies to advertise oneself with. Nowadays we view media as a means to go through people (such as performers) to the products that sit behind them and pay the bills (or we did: consider the Texaco hour or the Chevrolet hour, and other past shows of that sort. But now the thing, the product, is simply a medium in itself, or part of one, a new way for the person -- say its designer, or the sports star it represents (Air Jordan) to get more attention. It is advertising the other way round. This inversion will proceed even further -- and quite fast.

Fourth: if attention gets you what you want, money is an increasingly unnecessary supplement. If you don't have attention, you can't get money anyway. If you do have attention you don't need money. So why advertise as a means to push product, so as to end up with cash? Why not just advertise yourself, to get attention? (Let me add that digital money -- cyberspace money -- is never likely to work very well. Consider the kinds of effort the US government must go to prevent the counterfeiting of actual bills these days: new hidden strips within the paper, microscopic writing, hologram-like foils, etc. None of this can be done digitally; instead digital money depends on security at a very high level for every transaction, and unbreakable codes. Yet high security causes uncomfortable delays, and no codes can be truly unbreakable. Once someone figures out a code-breaking algorithm, it can be sent anywhere virtually instantaneously. That is why cyberspace is much better suited for the attention economy, where codes are unneeded, than for the money economy.)


What is tricky is the transition, the period we are now in, when advertisers in the traditional sense face increasing challenges in seeking attention, yet money still at least seems highly desirable. Now, economic or cultural revolutions are made, in large measure, by those who, if asked, would declare themselves opposed. Still living according to the old rhythms, or thinking they do, they nonetheless see their own advantage in exploiting the very trends that create the new structures. Given what the times permit, even in the old terms, joining in with the revolution is the best strategy open. Thus the aristocracy at the end of feudalism often cooperated with the rising class of bourgeoisie and industrialists, who also saw themselves as would-be nobility. In seeking to heighten their status within the courtly system, they brought it to a faster end.


Today, those definition-one advertisers who knowingly ride the tiger -- or go with the flow, if you prefer that more passive metaphor -- regardless of where it may ultimately land them, are likely to do best. This means: linking themselves with clearly defined personalities -- potential stars -- in every aspect of design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, and advertising; supporting creativity and incorporating it into their products as fully as possible; tying themselves with widely looked-at Internet sites, even if that requires a tiny ad size, or only a subtle link to their actual products.


Then too, the advertising profession potentially has an important role in helping to devise and aid methods for seeking attention directly in cyberspace, even though this would be mostly personal attention; any of the techniques invented for pushing product in other media can be adapted for this new role. And of course, there is ample room for new techniques as well: see any newsgroup or chat room; imagine them equipped with video, replete with all sorts of software for fades in and out, fake backgrounds, combining scenes from other sources, animation, etc. If you are in advertising, you can turn your skills to your own self-advertising and expect to outdo the vast majority who lack your skills, at least at first.

Current kinds of Web ads, will increasingly seem to browsers, like TV ads to most viewers , as too big a drain on attention -- unless they are incredibly good productions on their own or the products they showcase are truly fantastic. So just as with TV remote controls, most Web ads will be zapped, unattended to. Software for this purpose will do the job with increasing efficiency.

Regardless of the fact that it is and will continue to remain problematic to transmit money over the web, or to make money by advertising via it or by making web products, a great deal of money and even more ingenuity will nonetheless continue to be poured into it, so that it will reach ever more people as an ever more versatile medium combining all media.

Just as colonists and conquistadors rushed to the New World of the Americas 500 years ago, planning to set up a replica of the feudal Europe they had left, so today and in the near future, by the billions we will head for cyberspace, many of us thinking to reproduce the money economy we know so well. But just as the real economy of the Americas turned out to be the money-industrial system, which, after finding its best home here bounced back to take over Europe just as completely, so too the economy of cyberspace will swiftly move towards the pure Attention Economy which will then bounce back to complete its takeover of our old, material world. The advertising professionals and advertisers who know where they are headed will fare the best.

--Michael H. Goldhaber / 11/15/96.
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