Our modern world of media and advertising is shaped by many forces. The strongest and most important of them is attention. Take a minute to think about all the things that you read or clicked on today. What made you choose them out of a thousand others?
The term 'attention economy' comes to mind when we think about this. Economics studies the allocation of scarce resources and how to maximize their use. Your attention is also a scarce resource that a thousand different media entities are competing for.
The Media, Brands, and Politicians Thrive on Your Attention
Politicians, brands, the media, advertisers: All of them depend on your attention to thrive and stay relevant. To do this, they often use various tactics in order to get you to focus on them.
These tactics are popularly known as attention triggers. (A term coined by Ben Parr, author and Editor-at-Large at Mashable). These can be broken down into 6 distinct types:
1: Automaticity: Automatic response patterns are something our bodies are designed to do, often to protect us from danger or predators. Today, this visceral reflex is channelled through acquiring more information. Media companies exploit this by coining buzzwords, graphic imagery, novel colors, sights and sounds. Since we don't live in fear of wild beasts anymore, our inhibitions are significantly lower, leaving us vulnerable to such attention tactics.
Case in point: the headlines "Is Intersectionality enough to combat oppression?" and "5 shocking instances of animal cruelty."
2: Intentional Structuring: This method is especially effective when combined with the 'Fear of Missing Out' (FOMO) in today’s day and age. We all want to belong. Nobody wants to feel out of the loop, like they're the odd ones being left out. Headlines are purposely structured in a way that makes you feel the need to tune into them, just to be a part of what everyone else is doing.
For example, headlines such as: "The Jersey incident that everyone's talking about,” "The riot that shocked the nation," or "12 instances of racism we all know, but ignore.”
3: Subversion: We're more likely to pay attention to those pieces or headlines that subvert our expectations or dismantle our current view of the world. That's why most news you come across is always negative. Shocking you or subverting your worldview removes normalcy in order to get your attention. The media uses shock factors, strawmanned quotes, or vitriolic rhetoric to get you to notice them. Many times, the content can be exaggerated or manipulated to a large extent in order to get a reaction out of you.
Subversion can be found in headlines such as, "Breaking: The president refuses to condemn White Supremacy", "Why your favorite holiday is so problematic," or "The exploitative roots of your daily coffee.”
4: Personalization: This is the most common, and arguably the most effective technique employed by the media. The news is put forth in such a way to make you feel like it's affecting your life personally. Names of celebrities, influencers, popular books, movies, and TV shows are used to stir up interest. It may also involve the use of words like 'you', 'we', 'you all', 'us' or a certain group identity. The main aim here is to personalize the content so it's relatable to you and catches your attention.
Some examples of personalization in the media are: "How your Second Amendment rights are coming under attack" and "Why we're in danger if we don't impose more carbon regulations.”
5. Mystery: Almost each and every one of us has been a victim of this. As the name itself suggests, this tactic consists of exciting the viewer's curiosity to get them to click or read through. The titles may be left incomplete, are vague, or create intrigue. Clickbait is a staple example of this technique. A vague headline makes the reader wonder what it's all about and feel compelled to click. Sometimes, a brief sentence indicates what the piece may be about without actually giving away the details.
Some examples of mystery in headlines are, "Influencers say this shampoo gives them the best hair ever,” "Want to have the best sex? Try these techniques.”
6. Name Dropping: This refers to the practice of using trendy topics or prominent people to enhance a narrative. The people mentioned could be celebrities, notorious/controversial individuals, or experts who will give the news credibility, shock, or intrigue. Mentioning prominent people or a topic that's already trending is a guarantee of higher levels of readership, since people will pay attention immediately. Name dropping is one of the oldest and most common techniques used by the media to garner attention.
This can be spotted in headlines like, "Candace Owens slams Harry Styles' dress in Vogue", "Dr. Fauci says prepare for COVID-19 to last for the next couple of years," and even, "The Colorloo challenge on Tik Tok is turning heads.”
Be Conscious of Where Your Attention Goes
In order to avoid being manipulated by the media and make more informed choices, it's important to be aware of the tactics the media uses to retain your attention. Your attention is a very valuable resource. Make sure you spend it on something worth your time.
Avanti Giridharan is a freelance writer. She seeks to empower people through logic and compassion in her writing. When she's not writing, she can be found reading or playing music. She has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed by Julie Mastrine, AllSides Director of Marketing. She has a Lean Right bias.