...Vs. The Case for Slowing Down

Jan 24, 2019

It is conventional wisdom that America’s attention span is shrinking. A couple of decades ago, we cut our 60 second TV ads down to 30, and now apparently the “right” length of an Internet ad is 15 seconds. We reduce presidential platforms to bumper stickers. We speed-date. When we insta-message our friends, we can’t even bother to spell out whole words. How much more ADD could America be?

But—slow down a minute. (Yes, a whole minute.) For every Tuesdays with Morrie, there is a Tom Wolfe novel. For every frenetically animated, two second pop-up ad on your computer screen, there is a carefully scripted 30 minute infomercial on your TV—an industry that rakes in over $90 billion per year.

Some people operate on a totally different wavelength. From books to movies to products to news, they want more depth, more information, real answers to more of life’s questions. They want substance, not style and flash. So while many marketers and politicians have been perfecting communications aimed at “ADD America”—packing wallops of a message into the nanoseconds they think their audience will give them—they would be wise to pay some attention to America’s “LAS,” or Long Attention Span folks, too.

How do we know the LAS are out there? Let’s look at sports. Fully half a million Americans run marathons, races of 26 miles or more. Almost 200,000 try triathlons, the toughest of which are Ironman triathlons—marathons plus a 2.4 mile swim plus a 112-mile bike ride. It’s not like they could just as easily win a 50-meter sprint. These are people who wrap their heads (and bodies) around something and stick with it for far, far longer than one could reasonably expect. They are in it for the long haul.

Golf, which takes easily four hours per round and is as much a game of the head as it is of the body, has grown in the last 20 years into a $62 billion industry, well outpacing the shorter-term gratification “amusement, gambling, and recreation” industry. The much faster moving game of tennis has been declining in interest, as more people want to slow down, take their time, and immerse themselves for long periods of time, lost in thought or sport.

Or look at reading. Even as the average Internet page gets about 60 seconds per hit, magazines with 13,000-word, reflective articles like Atlantic Monthly have increased their readership to nearly half a million, or almost by half since 1980. Between 2002 and 2005 alone, the circulation of Foreign Affairs—truly a publication of all words and no pictures—grew 13%.

The real kicker is puzzles. Apparently, 50 million Americans do crossword puzzles, which can mean anything from ten minutes to three hours of wrestling with arcane synonyms, bad puns, and your own limited spelling. Puzzle-lovers are especially found on the West and East Coasts, where we think of time as being the most hurried.

And of course there’s Sudoku, the insanely addictive game where you have to fill in the blank squares of a grid so that each nine-cell row, column, and minigrid contains all the numbers from 1 to 9. In 2003, practically no one had heard of Sudoku; now Sudoku books fill several shelves in most mainstream bookstores and generate over $250 million in global sales.

Whether it’s half a million marathoners or Atlantic Monthly readers, or 50 million crossword-puzzlers, LAS Americans are not just the Fringe Attentive. In fact, despite what you learned in marketing school, tuning in for the long haul is really quite mainstream. The biggest-grossing movie ever in America was Titanic, which ran for more than three hours. 24, the TV show that took five Emmys in 2006, makes you watch a whole season just to know what happens in one day. Harry Potter, the most popular book series on earth, proved that not only do we love long stories, we’ll wait in lines as long as Lord Voldemort’s snake to get the next installment. Long novels, like those of Thomas Pynchon and James Michener, are huge sellers. Series fiction, like that of John Updike and Patricia Cornwell, sustains our attention for literally decades at a time.

In fact, in 2005, the best-selling books in America were, on average, more than 100 pages longer than they had been ten years before. And even back in 1995, the top ten sellers averaged a hefty 385 pages! 

Take political speeches. Every public speaking expert on earth will tell you that short and sweet means powerful. The Gettysburg Address, they recall (with a wistfulness that makes you think they think they were there), was under 300 words and took President Lincoln less than three minutes to deliver. But in 1995, President Clinton gave a 9,000-word State of the Union address that took 76 minutes to deliver—and it was both the longest and one of the most successful in history. Nearly every year, more than twice as many Americans watch the State of the Union address as watch the final game of the World Series.

So while many politicians try endlessly to cram big thoughts into a few small words known as a sound bite, President Clinton mastered the art of issues-based campaigning. He took the issues and the voters seriously, and rather than give them just “red-meat speeches” (that, for example, John Kerry was famous for), he explained issues in a thoughtful and detailed manner. Senator Hillary Clinton is this kind of politician, as was, for all his other troubles, Richard Nixon. No doubt some voters regard their speeches as boring or wonky. But candidates like that do it out of a distinct respect for people, and a belief that V. O. Key said fifty years ago, “the voters are not fools.”

Key had a profound influence on how to approach polling and the voters. He systematically studied presidential races in America and determined that each one was decided on the basis of real, rational, and thoughtful reasons, not on the basis of who wore the better tie. In other words, the rational side of people is far more powerful in many areas of life than the purely gut or emotional side. For every person who decides in a blink, there is someone who decides only after a serious, intellectual mud wrestle. And it is the latter type of voter who generally decides elections—the swing voters who go through a process of making real judgments, not snap ones.

The importance of the Long Attention Span in politics should not be underestimated—America itself is a country founded on long intellectual documents embodying powerful ideas that were debated long into the night. And in most other countries, when my colleagues and I bring in American-style political advertising on issues, it handily defeats old-style song-and-rally spots.

Finally, in the commercial world, look at some of the “upset” brand advertising like Dyson vacuums. Here a CEO painstakingly details the physics of the vacuum he invented and sweeps market share away from the leader. So be careful before you accept the conventional wisdom that Americans can’t concentrate, that we are too distractible for sustained narrative, and that political office always goes to the candidate with the cleverest tag line. In fact, a sizable number of us—often the most interested key decision makers—will listen for as long as you can talk, read for as long as you can write, and follow for as long as you are willing to explain something. Sometimes people say less not because they are such clever marketers, but because they have less to say.

From the book MICROTRENDS by Mark Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne. Copyright © 2007 by Mark Penn. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All right reserved.