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John Beck - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Attention President

Donald Trump is the first president of the Attention Economy. John Kennedy was arguably the first Knowledge Economy president, lambasting the ruling military-industrial complex during his campaign.  Sometime during the last decade of the 19th century, the White House baton had passed from the Agricultural Economy to the Industrial. But for most of our lifetimes, Knowledge Economy champions have been in the White House. Consider the number of times over the last forty years that presidential candidates have been “disqualified” for the top job because they didn’t "know" something (Poland as a part of the Soviet Union, for example, or more recently not remembering the name of the Energy Department). 

That all changed in this election—knowledge, facts, and support of the Knowledge Economy elites were not enough to win. Our political system started to catch up to what the business world has been thriving on for the last decade and a half: attention. 

Trump’s administration became the first chapter in this new political reality because the president himself is an attention narcissist who has honed his skills better than anyone in politics today. The business model behind his companies shifted to attention years ago—most of his income derives from branding rather than operations. 

When I started working a decade ago with advertising firms on the concepts found in The Attention Economy, they believed good advertisements should embody "positive" attention traits: Attractive ("It makes me feel good"), Front of Mind ("I’m concentrating on it"), and Voluntary ("I want to").

But they, like Mr. Trump, came to learn that combining those with "negative" types of attention—Aversive ("I'd better pay attention or bad things may happen"), Captive ("It is all around me"), and Back of Mind ("My mind unconsciously goes to this")—more effectively lead to desired behaviors (buying or voting).

This makes obvious sense from an evolutionary point of view. We all are poised to respond strongly to stimuli that elicit the more negative attention—we are designed to try not to die. Donald Trump has tapped into that instinct in many of our already "threatened" citizens: those largely left behind by the knowledge economy who long for the days of industrial might. 

Many have noted that President Trump surrounds himself with chaos—and seemingly thrives in it. One devoting so much attention to attracting attention may have little to give to others—an unattractive trait for anyone trying to manage anything more than a brand-focused organization. And while chaos is not an effective path to the positive types of attention politicians have traditionally sought, it is a great way to get aversive, captive, and back of mind attention.

But it is not just chaos; Trump and his team know that Republican voters are often single-source media consumers. Control social media, talk radio, Fox News, or reality television programming and you have captive attention--all day every day. Candidate Trump's use of slogans in his speeches (often so outlandish that they even elicited laughter from his own audiences as they screamed the lines mindlessly) tapped into back-of-mind, knee-jerk reflexes. And his aversive, doom and gloom tirades kept audiences fearful for their own lives if Hillary were to be elected. 

But Candidate Trump also drew "positive" attention to his campaign. There was plenty of Attractive, Voluntary, and Front of Mind attention showered on him by his followers. And the combination of all six types of attention elicited the voter turnout he needed.

There is no evidence to suggest President Trump will lead any differently than he campaigned. As the Attention President, he will try to surprise, disgust, and threaten us into attentional submission. When he doesn't like the type of attention he is getting, he will deny any role in creating it and roll out a new target to elicit a different reaction.

And with all of these moves, he keeps his detractors at bay. They are still playing by the knowledge economy rules. Or if they have figured out that it is now about attention, they still are prone to using Attractive ("love" and "unity"), Front of Mind (logic and analysis), and Voluntary (protests that impact only fellow city-dwellers, not the President or his more rural supporters ... protests that often receive little press/social media coverage in pro-Trump outlets).

So, to those trying to wrench the attention high ground from the President, the advice is simple: be ubiquitous, unavoidable, and make the President and his fans feel like they must pay attention to you—and your message—or there will be dire consequences for them personally.

Dealing with Donald Trump himself requires different tactics (some very familiar to anyone who has ever tried to deal with a child or pet who is acting out to get attention): don't use his name, ignore what he says, and avoid anything that is about him. I’m not saying stop engaging in the political process; definitely oppose policies with which you disagree—many Congressional representatives will be interested in paying attention to what their constituents have to say—but leave the President's role out of it: "There will be legislation coming before Congress soon that we should oppose ..."

Finally, I return to what a neuroscientist told me was his most important maxim: "when it comes to attention, the eyes don't lie."  The best protest against an attention narcissist is simple: don't look at him—just turn your back. 

John Beck is Chief Innovation Officer at Arizona State University and author of The Attention Economy and Good vs Good


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