The marketeers at my university, earnest as they are, are but amateurs in the race to measure, quantify, instrumentalize, and value people’s attention. A couple of days ago, the New York Times ran a story about the Walt Disney Company’s efforts to get at what makes online behavior work — so that they can best sell our attention to advertisers. As the Times writes, the problem is the following:
It is relatively easy for Internet companies and their advertisers to measure precisely how often Web site visitors click on advertisements, and which kinds of ads draw the most clicks. But what about those who do not click, the many millions of others whose eyes merely flit across the screen? Disney and other companies say they believe that not nearly enough is known about them — what kinds of ads in which configurations are likeliest to draw them, and hold them?
Presumably, knowing which sorts of ads are most effective at luring and trapping viewers will allow Disney to adjust advertising rates; while the lowly banner ad may actually decrease in value (that is, it will be seen to become lost in the morass of internet noise), abrasive pop-up and -over adverts may fetch a higher price. Finding the “laws” that organize viewer attention will allow Disney to make decision as to what adspace is worth what. And to get at them, they are employing all manner of science:
The tools are advanced: in addition to tracking eye movement, Dr. Varan and his 14-member team use heart-rate monitors, skin temperature readings and facial expressions (probes are attached to facial muscles) to reach conclusions.
The entire aesthetic of advertising, how viewers experience, viscerally, the flow of image and noise, is being put under the microscope, its heartrate measured, its blood run. The underlying assumption of all this research is that when a person watches an advertisement for a thing, he or she becomes more inclined to purchase it — all the scientastic data that is gathered about where most people’s eyes flit as they play with their BlackBerrys is not worth so much on its own. What is at issue is the inculcation of (ineffective) demand, and what sort of information can be gathered about which methods work at doing so.
The money value of adverts is an interesting thing. The Times notes that in the past companies gauged how much an ad slot was worth by looking at how many viewers a show had (which itself was an extrapolation from various industry-serving firms, like Nielsen); with increased technological capacities, it is now possible to measure how many people watch not only the shows themselves, but the commercials sliced into them. Along with the ability to more accurately keep track of the number of commercial-viewers have come refinements in evaluating the quality of their attention:
In 2001, CBS opened a research facility in Las Vegas called Television City, with a primary aim of testing pilot programming. But the company has recently moved deeply into advertising and new media testing. Through a partnership with NeuroFocus, a company based in Berkeley, Calif., that is partly owned by Nielsen, CBS monitors the brain activity of people while they watch television and ads. In 2008, about 70,000 people participated in one of CBS’s tests.
“You’re seeing science moving into the marketing sector in a major way,” said David Poltrack, CBS’s chief research officer.
The Times piece goes on to mention that while there already are many labs doing research on perception, how the brain works, and related matters, they do not work quick enough — or perhaps do not organize their research around the right end — for major companies. Hence corporations such as Disney and CBS have started their own labs to conduct their own research. This could lead to a further privatization of knowledge, as publicly funded (at least in part) research done at universities gives way to that done for and by corporate patrons; the problems inherent in this are self-evident. It brings to mind the scenario sketched by Herb Schiller in Culture, Inc.