2020: Year of the Moth

Not now Greta, we’re busy

Even a petty thief knows that in order to score a steal, you need a good decoy. It may need to involve enlisting your best friend to strike up a flirty conversation with the shop attendant while you stuff a lifetime supply of your favourite French cheese down your baggy pants. It could be orchestrating an incident, faking an accident, or simply pulling down the fire alarm so that you can escape unnoticed. No one will suspect you as you walk away casually in the middle of the mayhem, hands full. You were just an innocent customer, running for your life.

Those who work in the areas of marketing, branding and political communications know this principle very well. They are aware that, if there are too many decoys distracting their prospective customers or voters, they won’t be able to get through to them. THEY need to be the decoy. With social media dominating our attention and advertisers spending billions fighting over milliseconds of our screen time, we have long ago entered the attention economy: a time when all that matters is not the message, but how many people saw it, how many were exposed to it in the first place. In marketing terms this is called “breakthrough”, because it is literally about breaking through the attention barrier. If you are out of sight, you are out of mind.

Breaking this attention barrier is not only extremely costly. It is also very temporary. People will forget you instantly if you don’t follow up your communications campaigns or if a competitor has outspent you. The “battle of the decoys” comes down to a simple rule that as a market research professional myself have witnessed on a daily basis: people only hold on to a couple of pieces of information in their head at a time, each day, mainly as a consequence of limited memory space in our brain’s “desktop”, the part in our mind’s computer that is by far the most active and “present”. This is why we observe such quick and massive shifts in public opinion focus: the minute a new big topic comes into the top 3 topics we are following each day, another topic will be unavoidably chucked out of that top 3, relegated to “unimportant”.

Unfortunately we are coming to a time where there are too many topics, too many crises for the public to be able to be able to pay attention to at the same time. Racism, unemployment, COVID-19, global economic crisis. Issues such as climate change can wait. Greta Thunberg told us a while ago that our house is on fire. In fact, she is the only witness in the house who saw the arsonist flee. She is now trying to convince her parents that they need to take out a big fire insurance for the house asap, when it’s almost already late. Yet even at this late moment the answer is: “Not now Greta, we’re busy”.

Humans are not the only species on the planet who suffer from this. Our entire food chain and predator-prey relationships on this planet are based on the attention economy. A baby seal that got distracted playing with the waves, and ran straight into a shark. A butterfly that was on its way to a flower, but got snapped up by a frog. A moth that was heading for the soft blue light of a bug killer lamp, but got roasted instead.

2020 will be known as the Year of the Moth for humanity, because it has demonstrated this very principle. We are no different from other animals. Like moths, just centimetres away from the hot grill, all we see is the mesmerising blue light coming from our smartphone in our search for products, profit, exponential economic growth supported by a consumer lifestyle that destroys the planet’s climate. Earth sent us COVID-19 not only as a warning of what is to come, but also as a communications decoy. It is testing our attention. And we have failed the test spectacularly. 

To be continued…(or not)

George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , read his books or join his mailing list

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