Stop and smell the flowers: why we’re thinking wrongly about time

Stop and smell the flowers: why we’re thinking wrongly about time

What the new book from the foremost thinker on the Attention Economy can teach us about advertising — and life.

Jenny Odell’s new book, Saving Time: discovering a life beyond the clock, is destined to become the best beach read of 2023.

Odell is an artist and philosopher based in San Francisco. Her last book, How to do Nothing: resisting the Attention Economy (2019) was an international bestseller, revolutionized how we understand the impact of social media on the lives of teenagers (and grown-ass adults). Saving Time extends this analysis, and perhaps inadvertently, reveals some compelling insights into the way that advertising actually works.

Odell’s thesis is simple: we have been thinking about time wrongly. We tend to see it as stuff to be used up, when in fact it is an experience to be lived in. We worry — or forced by our bosses to worry — about filling the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run: maximising and optimising and quantifying our lived experience as if it was a commodity.

Instead, we should stop and smell the flowers. Building on Henri Bergson’s thinking, she draws a distinction between clock time and experienced duration. Not all seconds of our lives are equal. Some plod along, one damn thing after another. But others are alive with meaning and significance — a lived experience that is qualitatively different from clock time. Using the same measure to count both does violence to each.

To bring this home, each chapter is stylistically divided between time theory and experience practice. Odell will talk in one register about the relentless time crunch of Amazon warehouse workers, or the history of phrase ‘time is money’, and then cut to a dreamy description of a walk in the hills around the Bay Area — highlighting the minute details that you would miss if you were on ‘clock time’. This is the ‘emptiness in which you remember the fact of your aliveness.’

Why this matters for advertising

From such descriptions of the Sublime, it might be a bit ridiculous to talk about advertising. Especially so, as Saving Time is, in many ways, a denunciation of the near-constant ‘adverting’ of our attention towards money-making or money-spending activities. Perhaps we miss the point in taking her anti-capitalist thinking and putting it to commercial use.

But Odell’s thinking does point to an important insight about how advertising works. Attention time is valuable — but not all seconds of attention are worth the same.

One the deepest insights of the Dentsu Attention Economy project was the concept of ‘Effective Attention’. The study, which remains the largest attention study ever undertaken, started by revealing some very basic facts. Firstly, there are very big and very consistent differences in attention across media. Secondly, attention and recall are correlated: in general, more attention leads to more memories and more money. So far, so obvious.

But — and this is the deepest insight gained from the study — it also showed that different media are differently efficient in turning attention into effect. TV and Cinema might generate many times more visual attention than digital channels, but this does not necessarily mean that they generate proportionally more recall or sales.

Three or four seconds of attention to a ‘voluntary’ video format like Teads might be better remembered than four or five seconds of attention grudgingly given to ‘forced view’ alternatives. A well-designed poster might drive more recall in a second than a badly constructed video that lasts 10 times as long.

What drives these differences in Effective Attention? In part, it’s down to the medium. Audio visual media seem to be more attentionally efficient than their competitors because they engage both the eyes and the ears. Movement catches the eye — and the mind — more than static images. Size matters.

But it’s also down to what you do with it — or rather, how you suit your creative to the reality of the media. The best OOH ads know the time budget they are playing with. They are clean, clear and simple — specifically so that they can work in a couple of seconds.

Those Teads ads that work so hard to earn attention and turn it into memory know their limits: they get the job done in a few seconds rather than assuming you’re going to stick around to watch a mini-TV ad. Cinema ads, the great white whales of advertising attention, can luxuriate in assured attention — but don’t think you can tell the same stories on mobile pre-roll. To make your attention effective, make sure you are matching the message to the media.

But how much fun are you having?

But this talk of efficiency brings us back to Odell’s book and why it is the best beach read of the year. As summer approaches, I am sure that you, like me, are putting together holiday reading lists: finally getting round to reading Orlando Wood’s Look Out, or engaging with Jenni Romaniak’s thoughts on Distinctive Brand Assets. What fun is in store for you.

But before you upskill yourself poolside, I urge you to read Saving Time first — and consider how much time we spend thinking about work even when we are ‘off the clock’.

Read it, and then think deeply about how you are valuing your own time — are you using up a commodity or enjoying the experience? Then put away the business books, look around you, see the infinite beauty of this astonishing world. Live your life.

Mike Follett, managing director of Lumen Research, is currently sailing in Croatia.

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