Yesterday, I was in a store on Columbus Avenue here in New York City, and saw a daytime caregiver shopping for herself and leaving the children she was watching to fend for themselves in a stroller on the other side of the room. One of the children was irritable and crying. I see this all the time. Child- and elder-care givers, dog walkers, housekeepers, teachers, messengers, overnight delivery and UPS truck drivers, construction workers, nearly everyone is on the phone. Whether they are driving, walking or supposed to be engaged in a paid professional pursuit, they are on the phone. Calling, texting, gaming, listening to music, we are hardly ever doing what we are paid to do or even primarily engaged in doing anymore.
A friend of mine who is a self-proclaimed tech ignoramous has a phone, a blackberry, an iPad, a Kindle and a desktop computer. She can barely find the on button for most of these gadgets and is usually on all of them, or at least two of them, at a time. During most phone calls with her, our conversations are punctuated with expletives having nothing to do with our discussion. She isn’t really listening and her responses are fragmented and half-hearted. Until I pointed it out, I don’t think she was aware of what she was doing. She doesn’t call me anymore.
Had the Baby Boomers’s attention been so divided during the late 1960’s and 70’s, what might have happened? Would we have even noticed that Cambodia had been invaded? Would we have noticed that the campus at Boston University, where I was a student during the Viet Nam War, had been occupied by the National Guard tactical police? Granted, friends of mine and I were somewhat preoccupied with what we would wear to the next demonstration, but we knew there was a War on that we didn’t approve of and we were all at least headed in the same philosophical, if not political, direction.
When the Chicago Seven took over the 1968 Democratic National Convention, would the crowd have been behind the protest or would they have been too busy tweeting pictures of each other to their friends? When I was in my early twenties, our focus was focus. We were aspiring transidental meditators following John and Yoko and trying (admittedly, with the help of hallucinogens) to “Be Here Now” with Baba Ram Das.
When I traveled to Europe as a teenager, my parents wired me messages and money and I’d stand in endless lines of other U.S.A. teenagers and trekkers to pick them up at American Express offices all over The Continent. I met some of the most interesting people in those lines, sitting in railway stations, at sidewalk cafes, in museums and just walking around. I experienced the cities I was in and became a citizen of the world. Those, and other experiential wonderments, permanently expanded my consciousness. I was in Italy when the first US astronauts landed on the moon. The Americans at the sidewalk cafe where the landing was broadcast by satellite were proudly huddled together cheering and feeling the palpable patriotism of that moment in history. What I might be doing today in that situation is texting someone at home and missing the whole darn thing.
The question is: Can you really get behind anything when your attention is so fractured?
My career is marked by many forays into the tech frontier. I know the value of marketing communications and have a keen understanding of multiple touch points. What I see in the market place is a machine gun approach to pulling purchasing power with very little real respect for the medium. Overhearing a conversation on the street one day, a young male (ultra coveted marketing target) was on his new cell phone pleading with the service provider to remove him from the mailing list associated with his phone contract. Since his service had been turned on, he said, he’d received hundreds of texts about products in which he had little or no interest. He was approaching total overload and implored them to either quit bombarding him or to cancel his contract.
Abuse of the privilege of having your target market at your fingertips has spawned a particularly obnoxious trend toward consumer harrassment. Typified by marketers who are late to the party, there is faint or little appreciation of the art of communication in the digital market place. This oversight is rampant and, in my humble opinion, a function of marketers being pathetically behind the curve and constantly playing catch up with their target audiences. Let’s face it, no busy mother – if and when she has a spare moment – is going to the Campbells Soup Facebook page! No two-income family trying to hold on to their house is spending down time tweeting Toyota Stories. Ironically, in marketing parlance, this and other futile attempts to seamlessly incorporate into the consumer’s “mind-share” is neatly labeled as “experiential marketing”. Who are they kidding?
I predicted to a colleague of mine that when the online environment became inundated with marketing messages, the mob would migrate elsewhere. And so, like clockwork, as advertisers took over the Internet, the market moved to the next medium, cellular. No one I know under 30 emails anymore. Email just takes too long. Whats more, when the advertiser got hold of it, people began to ignore the messages. We’ve far exceeded the hassle factor of chain letters and daily jokes. Spam folders jammed, most email recipients stopped reading what they received, even from people they know. Most emails are replete with legal disclaimers and are, what we used to refer to as, bandwidth hogs. Text is the medium of choice. I heard the perfect line in a movie the other day. This Mellennial quipped as she answered her cell phone, “If you’re calling, you must be old otherwise, you’d be texting.” As consumers, we hardly know where to look or what to do. If you, like my friend up above who is clumsily managing messages in three media at a time, and are working hard to stay connected to everyone everywhere all the time, are you paying attention to any one of them?
And what is UP with how important every single message is? Is there really an A.D.D. epidemic or are we just distracted by our toys? My favorite visual is of a frozen individual in the middle of the sidewalk staring into his or her palm. My greatest fear is that any one of these folks is going to cross a busy intersection without noticing the car obliviously speeding around the corner. What the heck is the urgency of grunting 40 characters or fewer back and forth t0 anyone in the middle of lunch with a good friend? Why are we walking together if we are each on the phone with other people? Why travel across town to hook up when we are preoccupied with someone somewhere else? Why show up for a protest if you’re busy ordering your new pair of Fry Boots and can’t even hold a sign?