The Uses of Distraction

We think of motion media and advertising as two sides of the same coin, but they were not always wedded together. In the first part of the 20th century, when you went to the movies, you paid for a ticket and you sat in a theater blessedly free of commercials. Television changed that implicit contract for technical reasons — there was no way to know what you were watching and thus no way charge you for it. The result was the concept of “sponsorship,” and we’ve been living with that advertising model for a good half-century now.

Many people have tried to understand what the television revolution in the ’50s and ’60s did to us. Some of the most interesting work was done by teachers. In the early ’80s they began to see that the kids coming into their classrooms couldn’t do the same work that a previous generation could, couldn’t pay attention in the same way, couldn’t concentrate as well. They busily adjusted their curricular materials and dumbed down their tests to make it possible for a new generation to get through the school system. (For details, check out Jane Healy’s book “Endangered Minds,” which includes sobering samples of the old and new tests.)

Today, the average kids sees 20,000 TV commercials — per year. The average adult will see 2 million commercials by the time they are 65. We like to pretend that these things don’t affect us. But advertisers aren’t spending all that money for nothing.

Now it turns out that this was only the beginning. Two trends are going to make TV commercials soon look positively quaint: Internet-delivered video-on-demand and portable flat-panel screens. The combination is going to produce a media environment of unparalleled power. Every surface, every billboard, every bus ad, every wall in a supermarket, restaurant or doctor’s office, and of course, every phone or music player, will be capable of displaying moving video. Every minute of your life can and probably will be interrupted with commercial messages.

I’d like to coin a term for this new advertising environment: “ubiquitous embedded media.” One of the criteria for ads has always been how “compelling” they are — do they command your attention. By that metric, ubiquitous media is a home run out of the park.

TV ads work because they hook into primitive neural reflexes. One such reflex is designed to make you instantly pay attention to anything that moves; another makes you pay attention to new things, to novelty. It’s easy to see how these two traits would be important in helping you survive in the jungle. But with screens of all sizes glued to every surface around you, those reflexes are going to give advertisers more power than ever before to grab your attention and hold it.

A long time ago, advertising was about information. But today, the job of advertising is primarily to distract: to cut through the constant barrage of media clutter, to make you stop paying attention to whatever it is you’re paying attention to and look at the ad instead. In television, we see a proliferation of flash cutting. It seems like nearly every cut in daytime TV is punctuated with a white flash. What are they for? Simply to make you look. Ads on the Internet go even further. The latest ads for Yahoo jiggle constantly. It’s almost impossible to avoid looking at them.

What is this constant barage doing to us? Nobody knows yet. The fish doesn’t understand the ocean it swims in. But there’s a growing consensus in this country, especially among parents, that commercialism has gone too far, and there’s a nascent anti-commercial movement springing up to take action about it. (If you want to know more, a good place to start would be the excellent Commercial Alert web site.) My prediction? The more that advertising pushes into every nook and cranny of our lives the more people are going to push back.

Explore posts in the same categories: Media and Society, Quality of Life

One Comment on “The Uses of Distraction”

  1. Travis Says:

    Yes. True. But don’t all of these moving adds mean work for us…?

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