Thieving attention

I’ve spent Easter at Orbital, a science fiction convention in London. It’s largely literature-based, so listening to authors talk about their work and related stuff is one of the main pastimes. Charles Stross is one of the top guests, a highly perceptive author whose extrapolations on the social implications of technological trends make for a scary and exhilarating roller-coaster ride. (This article gives a flavour of his thinking.)

Stross’ talk was of the futuregazing, science-fact type and was interesting in many ways – not least for a demonisation of advertising which struck a chord with the audience. Spam, as we all know, is a pernicious side-effect of the IT driven communications with which we increasingly work and play. Imagine, then, giant artificial intelligences, faster and smarter than human minds, dedicated to the task of… selling us ‘enlargement pills’. An alarming extrapolation. Stross characterised advertising as attention theft, and described and speculated about various ways this does and might happen: from the mundane, it-happened-to-you-today database-driven delivery of unwanted mail, to the possibility of beguiling virtual environments that lure one in and then, in a hyper version of product placement ‘sell stuff’ to us, poor rube objects that we are. In this dystopian vision, where privacy has become a commodity precious enough to interest the Mafia, malign entities mine the clickstream and target humanity, with dodgy commerce rather than quaint ol’ death rays. Underpinning this is a society where the luxury of IT becomes compulsory as, for instance, the optional convenience of interacting with the state and its agencies online becomes a non-negotiable requirement. (I note that this has already happened with the university application system; company registration, tax and so on could easily follow as Stross points out).

Phew. Concealing my Chartered Marketer badge behind a battered H P Lovecraft paperback I edged towards the door, fearful that I might be outed and pelted with trilogies…

So am I an evil genius, plotting the downfall of humankind? Quite possibly – but I believe that marketing doesn’t have to involve aggressive, spammy techniques. The ‘new marketing’ approach is more about doing cool stuff that people will want to find and tell others about. Experiences, events and relationships with genuine value form a sort of cloud around actual products and commercial transactions. The SF convention is a good example – I’ve paid to be here, the authors etc invest time in being here, everyone has a good time, books get bought – everyone’s a winner. I’m not arguing against Stross’ points, merely saying there are positive possibilities too.

However, few organisations exist by ‘new marketing’ alone. Organisations (including, say, charities and education) have to be visible to people, and this does require getting attention in some way – which is increasingly difficult, given media fragmentation, technology and legislation that enable avoidance of advertising. But before we fire up the Mafia-owned AI spambots, we might think about marketing communications that earn attention rather than steal it, civil forms of marcomms interaction that give value and don’t outstay their welcome.