Attention Is A Finite Resource Under Siege

PORTLAND–Portland Ad Fed is hosting a heady event for a sunny Friday afternoon in June. Eric Anderson, Vice President of Marketing at Portland agency, White Horse, is here in the EcoTrust Building, ready to expound on social media marketing and what its practitioners might learn from game theory, which was developed to analyze nuclear options during the Cold War.
If it sounds like an academic topic, it is. Anderson holds a PhD in Cultural Theory from Washington State University, and an MA in the Humanities from Marquette University. His new book from Springer, Social Media Marketing: Game Theory and the Emergence of Collaboration, will be published next month.
“Social media marketing evolved from a cycle of mutual defection and is evolving toward greater cooperation,” says Anderson. He shows an evolutionary slide with banner advertising at one end, followed by email, paid search, social media marketing and finally a question mark, which he says is likely going to be answered by an integration of advertising and SMM. Naturally, the point is we’re evolving marketing in a social direction.
Anderson says there are three main things that game theory can teach social media marketers.

  • Expose yourself (self-command)
  • Don’t be a patsy
  • Try not to ruin it for everyone else

He supplies examples from the real world. He says is a “classic case” of self-command. “By dropping your guard, you get great content,” he says.
But brands can go too far with their guard dropping. Anderson says Skittles put itself utterly at the mercy of pranksters with nothing to lose, when the brand introduced their Modernista! like site. In other words, they were a patsy. “We have to be able to penalize consumers when they defect,” he claims. “Every social system needs rewards and penalties.”.
On his third main point, Anderson pulls out Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons”. Hardin’s 1968 article by that name describes a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.
“We as marketers are competing for consumers diminished attention,” Anderson says. Attention is a finite resource and it will be diminished he argues. His solution is simple enough to understand, but difficult to enact. He says brands will have to compete on the basis of quality, not quantity.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. David,
    I was at this event too. I thought it was a disaster. The idea that “Advertising is a war between marketers and consumers” is ridiculous and suggests to me anyway, a fine example of everything that’s wrong in the agency world – at least some of them. And it was a mighty stretch to align game theory with social media. In fact, I would argue that Anderson failed to make the connection.

  2. Dave,
    Thanks for the thoughtful, but challenging, commentary here. I too was put off by the idea that consumers could or should somehow be punished for fucking with a brand in the social space.
    I asked a question at the end of the session about it, and still felt there was no good answer. But since I don’t know much about game theory, I just felt Anderson might have been using game theory terminology and concepts a bit too liberally.
    In Anderson’s defense, I like to see a guy push the boundaries and he clearly has a certain kind of mastery. It just might be a bit too scholarly for my tastes. One of the things I love about advertising is how common it is. We can theorize about it all we want, but that doesn’t bend the brand’s need or will to use it.