From Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, loc 2256:

Besides, consumer research is all about winning some portion of a fixed number of purchases. It doesn’t create more consumption. If anything, technological solutions tend to make markets smaller and less likely to spawn associated industries in shipping, resource management, and labor services.

Digital advertising might ultimately capture the entirety of advertising budgets, but it does nothing to expand these budgets. There are upper limits on the revenue growth of the corporations that define the ‘attention economy’: how are they going to respond to these?

From Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet by Finn Brunton pg 197. The thesis of this impressive book is that what we call ‘spam’ is fundamentally a deliberate and disenguous violation of salience: it’s because of the vast array of new instances of salience being opened up, in which we search for and have a reasonable expectation of locating relevant material, each one providing an opportunity for us to attend to something in this new digitalised archive.

Spam persists and diversifies because we are living through a major, complex transition in the constitution and management of our own attention, a transition moving faster than our governance, our metaphors, and our software can keep up with. Spammers—the disbarred lawyers, impoverished con artists, would-be pornographers, credit card thieves, and malware coders—are the avant-garde, the wildcatting exploiters of this transition. They find domains where salience is being generated, whether in a comment thread, a search engine result, a social media platform, or your email inbox, and move to commandeer it. They are the crudest and most abject form of this capture, from students pranking each other with the words of a Monty Python sketch to global botnets producing more email than everyone else on earth, every single day. In their crude way, they show the rest of the online population the network’s new capabilities, the new forms of attention and community experience, which we have not yet fully understood.

As he puts it on pg 199: “Spam is the use of information technology infrastructure to exploit existing aggregations of human attention.”

On a cold Sunday morning watching Frasier in bed in my hotel room, I was slightly amazed to see an advert for Staffordshire university on channel 4. What makes it even more surprising is that they’re offering £1000 to people who enroll with them who registered it as their first choice. The advert proclaims that “it pays to visit an open day” but at least for some, it seems this is meant literally:

We believe in giving students a head start. Our Kickstart is exactly that. It’s £1000 towards the expenses of student life, and the best thing is you don’t ever have to pay it back. We know getting settled isn’t easy, so this’ll help ease you in. Whether it’s nights out, accommodation, travel, or books, you’ll be good to go in no time. How will you spend yours?

Is anyone systematically tracking the growth of university advertising in the UK? In the past few months I’ve seen tv adverts, film adverts, a WBS branded airport run way and countless adverts at train stations. To what extent are successful ‘efficiency savings’, where they exist, being swallowed up by marketing and communications budgets? Where might this trend towards financial inducements lead? While the Staffordshire £1000 works through a ‘UniCard’ for campus retailers, it’s easy to see how competitive dynamics might lead to much greater inducements over time.

Edited to add: the next advertising break had a De Montfort university advert.

I’ve received these two emails from Expedia in a matter of days:


What stands out to me is their use of emojis in subject lines to differentiate  themselves within what can be presumed to be an overcrowded inbox. It seems likely this has been tested, tracking a potential increase in engagement rate when the emojis are included, as well as plausible that the tactic indeed has a demonstrable positive effect. 

But how long does it take for this knowledge to circulate? How long before others are adopting the same strategy? In which case the increased capacity to win the attention of the reader and stimulate engagement is negated. In which case a new tactic is called for, one which will inevitably be subject to the same dynamics in the event of it enjoying demonstrable success.

This is what I’ve written about as a communicative escalation and I increasingly see examples of it everywhere.

Useful account of the role of ‘lead generators’ in generating ‘distinct digital-advertising landscapes’ with significant socio-economic ramifications. The filter bubble isn’t just a matter of cultural constraint:

As the big piles of data online continue to grow, these issues will become more pronounced. Information filters that control what version of the Internet a person sees are calibrated based on how much money various algorithms think you have. Which means distinct digital-advertising landscapes are increasingly drawn on socioeconomic lines.

The effect may be a more pleasant online experience for someone who is perceived to have more income. In the same way that startups have put a premium on cutting out human interaction for those who can afford it, adlessness can be a luxury for those who choose to buy ad blockers so their webpages load faster. But distinct ad landscapes aren’t just about seeing more elegant corporate messages, or encountering fewer pop-up ads—or even none at all. Companies and individuals are working together to target consumers on a personal level, to use their most vulnerable Google searches against them.

Watching channel 4 this evening, I encountered the NPower Price Promise which communicates their guarantee to always let consumers know the cheapest tariff available to them:

Except this ‘Npower Price Promise’ isn’t a deliberate policy to ‘stand up for customers’. It’s a requirement by the regulator that came into force on 26 August 2013:

Give all their customers personalised information on the cheapest tariff they offer for them. This information will appear on each bill and on a range of other customer communications.

This was required to be implemented by March 2014. So the self-congratulatory advertising campaign the company has launched seems in actuality to be an announcement that they’re belatedly complying with legislation.

I’d love to know more about how these adverts came to be made and how much was spent on them. Should we expect more of this in the future? Large companies presenting regulatory requirements as beneficent corporate policy is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the age.

Advertising is no less important in producing and regulating the new spirit of capitalism. It too conducts a subtle game of instrumentalizing unhappiness and dissatisfaction with capitalism as a motivation for consumption. This was witnessed as early as the 1920s, when American marketers targeted a growing collective sense of ennui and alienation from urban-capitalist existence, a feeling that more innocent, dependable relations were being lost. The images used to sell products during the 1920s and 30s were specifically drawn from a social ideal of traditional family and community life that industrial capitalism appeared to be destroying. [15]By the 1960s, advertising was tapping into frustrations with bourgeois and bureaucratic routines, speaking to the counter-culture even as it was first emerging. [16] Advertising, like management theory, is fuelled by a critique of the dominant normative-economic regime within which it sits, facilitating safe acts of micro-rebellion against the macro-social order. It acts as capital’s own trusted moral and artistic critic in order to inspire additional psychological engagement on the part of ordinary worker-consumers. Dissatisfaction is reduced to a psychological tendency to be fed back into processes of production and consumption. As a result, understanding such psychological qualities as impulse, libido and frustration—often in the micro-social context of the ‘focus group’—has been key to the development of advertising since the 1920s.

– Will Davies, The Political Economy of Unhappiness