Which Has Greater Impact, Influence or Attention?

Can influence trump attention? Which is more important to you?

Posted Jan 09, 2019

When we think of truly world-class attention-getters, why do Americans seem to come to mind first? Is this a cultural talent?

Americans really do excel at entertainment and advertising. These fields demonstrate the art of attention-getting taken to a professional level. Arguably, exceptional marketing skills are very much the foundation of a consumerist economy. How else can consumers be persuaded to buy more goods and services, whether need exists or not? Creating the perception of need and desirability is enough of a goal. In a word, attention equals seduction.

Is it any surprise that “sex appeal” is an especially effective and heavily emphasized tool in advertising by American companies? Isn’t this the ultimate metaphor for desirability? We use the same vocabulary – (instant) gratification, satiation, hunger, passion, etc. There can be no doubt that this approach works, but what does that mean about us when we respond?

We literally deify, i.e., ascribe godlike virtues to, our most popular celebrities. They are instantly recognizable in any context other than their private reality – when stripped of makeup and fancy clothes. Why do we feel such pleasure when we spot these rare creatures? How has our attention become so powerfully attracted to them? Is this a fundamental human need that is particularly strong in American culture?

Could a P. T. Barnum (1801-1891) have existed in any other culture? What characteristics of American culture encouraged and nurtured his talents? Despite his brilliant business instincts and success, Barnum certainly had his detractors. Some critics called him a huckster, a sensationalist manipulator, even an unethical fraud. Such is the life of an aggressive entrepreneur who figured out how to sell excitement built on the perception of extreme and rare novelty. How many MBA students have studied his methods to understand how he achieved his success? By the way, after a tumultuous life of up and down cycles, he served two terms as a member of the House of Representatives and was Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut late in life. Throughout his varied endeavors, he was always an entertainer first. Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for him would derive from his own words: "I am a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me".

How much did his life, all his craziness, influence the lives of others, even decades later? What do you think when you reflect on his lasting legacy, i.e., influence?

When does attention translate to influence? How many different kinds of attention are there? How do we respond differently to different kinds of stimuli? Shock and fear come to mind as two stimuli that have universal and immediate impact on people of all cultures. When viewing photographs of the detonation of an atomic bomb over Japan, who fails to sense the enormity of the devastating power and the unimaginable loss of life and destruction of property that resulted? What about a horrific multi-vehicle crash of mangled bodies and twisted steel entwined in deadly flames?

Fast forward to today’s internet, which enables social media and instant connectivity as well as free worldwide access to literally billions of people. Anyone and everyone can vie for our attention, essentially at no or very low cost. In this context, why are we surprised that we feel severely stressed by information overload and attention depletion? But has our appetite for attention-generating stimuli decreased?

What beliefs underlie and create the opportunity for popular television and film actors to gain significant economic and political power, i.e., influence? Popularity means name recognition, and having a fan base willing to ascribe “super-human” skills, i.e., knowledge, insight, and abilities, to these individuals without requiring any concrete evidence or proof. What does this phenomenon mean about our individual and societal values? How are we interpreting the influence we feel in response to these stimuli?

Now we have created a new class of public relations professionals, called Influencers, who are experts and specialize in monetizing social media communications. Some are as young as seven years of age and can earn millions of dollars in annual income! What a miracle! What does this say about how our economy works? Isn’t this the most extreme example of how attention can be converted to the power of influence? Is this only possible in advertising and marketing, where the connection of attention and influence is so direct.

Influence in the form of inspiration, on the other hand, can take years before tangible and practical outcomes are realized. Maybe this is because inspiration is actually a time-independent, multi-dimensional stimulus, affecting the intellect and the spirit as well as the emotions? Isn’t the impact of attention primarily on the emotions?

Consider role models who have been spiritual and thought leaders throughout thousands of years of human history. Maybe one of the most important distinctions between them and our contemporary celebrities is that those leaders wanted to draw our attention to their ideas and beliefs, while the appeal of celebrities is based on our perception of who they are as people, or who they portray in films and TV. The critical difference is intention.

When a leader intends to influence his or her followers, attention is only the first, and easiest step in making a connection. Attention helps initiate, but influence will be the consequence of a connection being perceived as meaningful and significant. The original intention must resonate with the values of the followers. Leaders are defined by how their followers respond.

Influence takes time and effort to digest and become actionable. Maybe attention is just the most immediate and most fleeting example of influence. Influence implies that the thoughts and or behavior of the recipient are affected and possibly modified, by as little as the introduction of a new data point that demands to be considered.

What is more important to you – influence or attention?