Attention is a precious commodity, and consumers are willing to trade it for something in return.

What We’ve Seen

Traditional advertising has become ever less effective because consumers’ attention has gotten ever scarcer.

The landmark 2002 book The Attention Economy, by Thomas Davenport and John C. Beck (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), warned of the limited “human bandwidth” to process all the competing forms of media that vie for our attention. And that was before Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were even born.

Today, the cluttered media landscape has forced marketers to set ever higher standards for creativity as well as fluidity; they must capture audience attention while at the same time inserting themselves seamlessly into the audience’s lives.

But consumers are getting wise to their own role in the “Attention Economy.” If attention is a valuable commodity, why not demand greater compensation?

For the most part, that ‘compensation’ has taken the form of entertainment content, like free music or movie downloads, but the market is getting more sophisticated. For example, Shopkick has an app that rewards consumers with actual discounts on products when they watch advertising for those products. In other words, the line between giving attention and getting something in return is growing shorter and straighter.


When it comes to getting consumers’ attention, the situation is pretty bleak—and cluttered—at first glance.

  • Mintel’s Hispanic Attitudes towards Advertising US October 2013 report has found that only 23% of all adults say that after they watch their favorite TV show, they can remember the brand name products the characters were using during the show while when it comes to movies, 21% say they can remember the brand name products the characters were using during the movie.
  • According to Mintel’s Internet Advertising: Search and Banner US April 2013 report only 15% of people said they can remember at least one of the ads they saw in the last month.

However, consumers are increasingly coming to accept that advertising is a part of life. Indeed, they are starting to take a quid pro quo approach to advertising: willing to pay attention, so long as they get something in return.

  • Mintel’s Mobile Advertising US May 2013 report has found that 37% would view an ad on their mobile if they were to receive something of value in exchange.
  • While 37% of people say that they accept that adverts are the cost of enjoying free content online while only 11% say that they would stop watching a video online if they had to watch an advert first, per Mintel’s Media Consumption UK July 2013 report.

As a result we’ve seen several new initiatives aimed at rewarding consumers for watching ads or interacting with the brand over social media or in real life – and even penalizing them if they don’t.

  • Urban Outfitters has launched an app called Urban Outfitters On You that will reward users for interacting and mentioning the brand on social platforms. Every time a user mentions Urban Outfitters on either Instagram or Twitter they are given points that unlock perks such as information on when sales will happen, first access to new merchandise as well as gig tickets (see Deals for Data).
  • Beer brand Newcastle offered free cab rides for people who agreed to talk up the new black ale Newcastle Cabbie brew through a massive megaphone (seeCabvertising).
  • In India, Telecom company Tata DoCoMo’s mobile advertising application GET – or GetEasy Talktime – gives users who watch video ads on their phones one free voice minute for local or national calling per ad viewed (seeGet Paid to Watch Ads).
  • On the flip side, Microsoft has put in a patent for “Control-based Content Pricing” which would charge consumers for skipping commercials with their DVR (the charge would show up on their monthly bill).

But if consumers are more open to advertising, they still draw a fine line between being spoken to and being stalked.

  • Privacy and the use of personal information is a significant concern. Mintel’s Digital Trends Winter UK December 2013 report 59% say that advertising that is based on their browsing history makes them feel uncomfortable.

Ultimately, consumers are open to ads so long as there’s something in it for them.

While free content is the most obvious way to lure them, there’s room for more creative incentives too. That’s the ethos informing recent outdoor campaigns which offer phone-charging docks (see Vitaminwater’s High Energy Ad) or alleviate air pollution (see A Billboard that Gives Back).


Advertising is becoming transactional—we just need 15 seconds of your time, and here’s a freebie—so what does that spell for branding efforts? Forcing consumers to sit through a commercial may get a brand eyeballs, but this approach does little to relationship formation. Taken poorly, commercials and banner ads will be seen as necessary obstacles to the consumer’s end goal.

In the struggle to create something touching, memorable, beautiful or just plain entertaining, it’s critical not to supersede the product itself. The brand should inform the content, rather than come across as a merely tangentially related sponsor.

For luxury brands, in particular, the idea of discretion is crucial. In a sort of ‘anti-bling’ movement, the logo and overt display of a brand may be less valued than the experiential aspects of the product or service. Advertisers may need to take a similar tack, harking back to the artful, tasteful side of marketing.

Should all brands operate in the entertainment business? No one’s saying it’s necessary to hire Scorsese for a three-minute Super Bowl spot. But aspects of art can maximise serendipity to create genuine surprise and delight, which should be the goal of advertising in the first place.

Key Action Items

  • Attention is precious so give consumers an incentive to spend time with you.
  • Extend beyond novelty. Is your campaign helpful? Surprising? Does it give your audience something to do, smile or think about?
  • Consumers are recognizing themselves as stakeholders in the attention economy, and they will be increasingly looking for ways to leverage their commodity.