The Crisis of Attention Theft—Ads That Steal Your Time for Nothing in Return

Attention Theft
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BY NOW, IT is pretty well understood that we regularly pay for things in ways other than using money. Sometimes we pay still with cash. But we also pay for things with data, and more often, with our time and attention. We effectively hand over access to our minds in exchange for something “free,” like email, Facebook, or football games on TV. As opposed to “paying” attention, we actually “spend attention,” agreeing to the view ads in exchange for something we really want.

The centrality of that deal in our lives makes it outrageous that there are companies who seize our time and attention for absolutely nothing in exchange, and indeed, without consent at all—otherwise known as “attention theft.” Consider, for example, the “innovation” known as Gas Station TV—that is, the televisions embedded in gasoline pumps that blast advertising and other pseudo-programming at the captive pumper. There is no escape: as the CEO of Gas Station TV puts it, “We like to say you’re tied to that screen with an 8-foot rubber hose for about five minutes.” It is an invention that singlehandedly may have created a new case for the electric car.

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