Practicing Diplomacy in the Attention Economy


Advertisers argue that attention is a finite resource. According to one study, individuals in the digital society are exposed to 8,000 advertisements a day. Given humans’ limited capacity for information processing, this barrage of advertisements is mostly ignored or forgotten within seconds. This means that if commercial brands are to compete successfully for the attention of digital users, they must stand out in some way. Successful advertisements grab users’ attention long enough to deliver a message that is processed, analyzed, and remembered. Advertisers also argue that those ads that grab users’ attention can generate greater engagement, enhance brand recollection, and improve trust with potential consumers. As one article in Forbes recently stated, “Simply put, more attention means more sales”. The question that follows is what kind of advertisements can grab users’ attention?

Some have suggested that specific types of content fare better in the “attention economy”, or in a digitally mediated world in which countless advertisers compete over the attention of digital users. Ads that are remembered may be those that break an existing template or are surprising in some way. Other successful adverts may summon the attention of users by employing striking visuals, or a humorous tone, or by referencing popular culture.

One of the most successful and viral ads in recent history was created by Old Spice. The advert, shown below, attracted users’ attention because it broke a familiar template and employed a satirical tone. The ad is essentially a parody. It mocks adverts for hygiene products that routinely employ attractive models, associate hygiene products with nature and its beauty and promise to transform the consumer into a glamorous object of desire.

Of course, brands are not the only ones to market their products in the “attention economy”. This is also true of MFAs (foreign ministries), Embassies, diplomats, and International Organizations. After they migrated to social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook diplomats soon realized that followers would not simply flock to digital diplomacy accounts. MFAs and Embassies needed to create appealing content that would summon the gaze and attention of digital users. Moreover, the content in question would need to be appealing enough to cause a user to stop scrolling, read a diplomatic message, analyze that message, and hopefully engage with it by sharing the content or commenting on it. Although MFAs and diplomats differ greatly from the ad men and women of Madison Avenue, on the social media marketplace, diplomats too are transformed into hyperactive salespeople. And while Old Spice sought to sell Body Wash, diplomats hope to sell their nation of the nations’ policies. Yet the same logic applies to both types of products- effective digital diplomacy and effective digital ads must stand out and attract attention.

Over time the competition in the “Attention Economy” only grew in intensity. Diplomats suddenly faced competition from numerous actors marketing similar products online, be it other diplomatic institutions, politicians, world leaders and influencers offering followers insight into world affairs or foreign policy. Thus, diplomats had to break the mold in some way, to subvert the traditional template of state communications. A humdrum tweet by an MFA spokesperson would almost certainly fail to summon and retain the attention of digital users who scroll through their feeds with speed.

The harsh competition in the “Attention Economy” has given rise to new forms of digital content, such as using humor in official state messages. Indeed, some MFAs have embraced a humorous tone online when commenting on world events including Ukraine, whose approach rests on referencing popular culture, and Russia that uses derogatory humor to attack Western leaders and states. This week saw another example of humorous diplomacy as the US Embassy in London, and the UK Cabinet Office, engaged in a comedic dialogue on Twitter as can be seen below.

A quick analysis demonstrates how humor and breaking pre-existing templates helps diplomats in the “Attention Economy”. The tweet by the US Embassy in London was viewed more than 16 million times, received 61,000 likes and 17,000 re-tweets. But more importantly, it prompted 3,000 comments suggesting that thousands of users paid attention to the tweet, analyzed it, and decided to comment on it. Comments should be regarded as the holy grail of digital diplomacy as they attest to the engaging nature of a tweet or Post. The impact of humor becomes even more evident when one considers the US Embassy’s average numbers of views and re-tweets over the past week, or that of the UK Cabinet Office as shown below.

Notably, this twitter interaction also stood out as it parodied state communications. The official and cumbersome language of diplomatic protocols and state accords was replaced with levity. The subject matter was not the range of inter-continental ballistic missiles or Russia’s military buildup but how to heat tea while the language of diplomacy itself was ridiculed with the US Embassy writing “We cannot stand idly by as such an outrageous proposal threatens the very foundation of our special relationship”. A similar choice of words is often used by US diplomats when commenting on human rights violations or the activities of adversarial states.

The important question is whether this tweet’s appeal, and ability to compete in the “Attention Economy” benefits diplomats or helps them obtain a concrete foreign policy goal? Will Twitter users’ beliefs about the US change thanks to this tweet? Will public support in the UK civil rise thanks to the banter exhibited on Twitter? Will Twitter users pay closer attention to future messages by these actors? Or was this simply an exhibit of diplomats’ profound understanding of the logic that governs the “Attention Economy”? Such viral tweets may help obtain policy goals if they are used as a springboard for greater engagement. If the US Embassy in the UK responded to some of the comments it garnered and began engaging in online conversations with its followers, it could transition from grabbing attention to retaining attention. This is important as retaining the attention of digital users can help boost the credibility of a diplomatic institution and its ability to inform the opinions and worldviews of social media users. Yet left unattended, these viral tweets wither away and are relegated to the digital dustbin of history.  

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