Monday, May 11, 2009

Your Attention, Please

Hitler is the ultimate conversation killer. If you're ever trying to have a legitimate debate and a comparison is made to Nazis or any derivation thereof, then there's no point in further discussion. You're no longer having an intellectual debate about whatever the topic was; you're now having an emotional debate about how terrible Hitler was. In most formal debating circles, the person who invokes Hitler or the Nazis automatically loses. In informal conversation, you've lost the argument as soon as you brought up Hitler or the Nazis, whether you realize it or not.

Likewise, I've recently come up with my own self-imposed, self-enforced rule of conversation. If someone invokes the "common knowledge" that kids have short attention spans these days, the conversation is over and said someone just lost.

The idea that attention spans are getting shorter with each passing generation has been around for a long time. It's so commonly repeated that most people accept it as fact. In truth, there's not enough research to draw that conclusion. Most evidence is anecdotal, and the current research points only to the fact that more research needs to be performed.

Here's the thing... I'm not trying to suggest that it isn't true. It probably is true. I've collected plenty of my own anecdotal evidence to make a convincing argument. What I take issue with is how the introduction of this idea sabotages and redirects a conversation. It's an easy, lazy way to make a point, and it blocks people from digging any deeper into an idea.
Take this example from the April 6, 2009 edition of KCRW's The Business. Host Kim Masters brought in former ER producer Neal Baer to discuss the declining popularity of the hourlong drama.

NEAL BAER: Young people -- are they not interested in one hour dramas? Are they interested in shows that last three minutes? I certainly hope not. You can't tell compelling stories in three minute bites, I don't believe. They're different. But they're certainly not gonna be complex. They're not going to plumb the depths of human emotion.

KIM MASTERS: We have a generation with the very tiny little attention spans.

BAER: And it's very superficial. So I certainly hope that there will be a plethora of new dramas on all the networks so that it lights, you know, the fire.

The entire purpose of this particular edition of "The Business" was to explore why and how hourlong dramas are losing their standing. But instead of allowing the topic to be examined, the host cuts in with the simpleminded notion of, "Well, you know the kids these days, with their short attention spans, and their Twitters, and why the hell won't they stay off my lawn?!!" She's subverting her own work. If the question is so simple to answer, then why are you dedicating an entire half hour of radio broadcast time to it? A person with knowledge and experience was brought in specifically to elaborate. He was doing so effectively, describing the problems inherent in short-form storytelling, and explaining what would be lacking if the hourlong drama were to disappear from the television landscape. And as he's right in the middle of doing what he was brought in to do, he is interrupted by the very person who brought him in, so that an inane, reductive "point" could be made.

The truth, of course, is that the topic is much more complex than "short attention spans" can account for, and it's worthy of further exploration. So why did the host of the show prevent the guest from exploring it?

You'll notice that adults are the only ones who make the "short attention span" argument. Whether they realize it or not, what they're doing is asserting their superiority over the newer generations. "When I was your age, I was able to sit still for 15 entire minutes. I didn't need computer generated special effects, and my friends texting me every minute, and why the hell won't you stay off my lawn?!!"

When you ask a reasonable, mature adult what it's all about, this whole "life" thing, we all tend to agree: we believe that children are our future. We all want to make things better. We work hard so that we can earn money, feed our families, save for our children's educations, and give them a better life than we had. So why is it that we reflexively seek ways to build ourselves up by putting children down? Why do we like to trumpet our attention span superiority?

What most people fail to consider is that the younger generations may be better off with shorter attention spans. The supposition in the "short attention span" argument is that shorter attention spans are a bad thing. Meanwhile, as history grows longer, and humans develop better, more thorough ways of recording, archiving, and searching through it, we find ourselves condensing a lot more information into shorter periods of education. And we expect our children to keep up with that. And guess what? They're keeping up! They're adapting. They're being presented with an ever-increasing amount of data, and they're processing it all masterfully.

Consider this article by Dr. Kathie Nunley. In it, she notes how the human brain seems programmed to gravitate toward novelty. "Not only does a novel experience seem to capture our attention," she says, but "it appears to be an essential need of the mind."

The pace of novel experiences has changed. At one time a young child could master or learn his surroundings and they remained relatively unchanged. A toy or two, a dozen people, a home sparsely decorated. Even the world outside the home had relatively limited novelty to offer after the first few years of one's life. ...

Not so today. Today's mind, young or old is continuously bombarded with new and novel experiences. Rather than novel opportunities every few days or weeks, we now have novelty presented in micro-seconds. ...

Even outside of television and video, the presentation of commercial product is at an unprecedented pace. Color catalogues, the internet, toy circulars, new car advertisements, mega-super stores are providing a bombardment of information, wants and wishes.

For better or for worse, this is the world we've been born into for many generations now, and our brains are keeping up with it spectacularly well. To exist and thrive in this world, we must acknowledge the possibility that shorter attention spans are a necessity. It's not the end of the world. In fact, it's what's going to perpetuate the world.

Instead of lamenting how short a child's attention span is, maybe you should concern yourself with how rapidly you become boring.

Besides, you know who thought children had short attention spans? Hitler.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Oh Yeah!

[This is a repost of a item originally posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007]

Oh Yeah!

When Kool-Aid Man burst through the walls of the courtroom in the very first episode of "Family Guy," no one was more delighted than yours truly. I love Kool-Aid Man! But other than the occasional appearance on "Family Guy," he really doesn't draw much water these days. (Pun intended, with my apologies.)
On a bookshelf in my living room sits a plush, stuffed Kool-Aid Man. At least 15 years old by now, he's still in almost-new condition. He's got to be a rare item; I'm the only one I know who has one. He is a cherished possession. He is always smiling.

My Kool-Aid Man toy is just one of many items I ordered from the Wacky Warehouse. The Wacky Warehouse, for those of you who weren't around for it, is one of the most ingenious promotional programs ever invented. It was based on one simple conceit: kids like to get mail.

Lots of food products, particularly those aimed at kids, give away bonus prizes if you send in proof-of-purchase UPCs. Kool-Aid came up with a better idea. Instead of boring old bar codes, they developed a point system. The larger the amount of Kool-Aid you bought, the more points you would get. If you got those crappy little powder-mix sleeves that required additional sugar, you got the crappy amount of 1 point. But if you got the big canisters that required only water, you got 12 points!

You'd pick up a Wacky Warehouse order form from strategic locations, such as check-out lines or corner stores. You know, places where a kid might feel compelled to annoy a parent into buying an extra box of candy, or otherwise spend some disposable income.

If I remember correctly, the Wacky Warehouse had mostly junk when it first began. We're talking skee-ball-ticket prizes, here. But I think the promotion caught on stronger than Kraft had anticipated. Before long, they had stuff that people actually wanted, like Hot Wheels and Barbies and radio-controlled cars. In the days before downloads, they would even offer music compilation tapes made to order from the songs you chose from their catalogue.
But even if all you were getting was a kazoo with the Kool-Aid logo on it, it was still great. Kids LOVE getting stuff in the mail. For several years, I had a pretty steady rotation of out-going orders and incoming items. I had my share of Rock-A-Dile Red t-shirts, Purplesaurus Rex thermoses, Kool-Aid Man wrist watches, and even a bright red canvas waist pack. It's a bit embarrassing now, but you have to admit, at least I was getting things that had a practical use. The visor really did block the sun; the beach towel really did dry you off.
All the items would eventually break or wear out or just become too childish as I progressed into my teen years. But not that stuffed Kool-Aid Man. If there was one thing I knew I could get away with, it was keeping an iconic marketing character. People collect all sorts of logos and G.I Joes and models based on comic book characters and "Star Wars" action figures. I have a Kool-Aid Man, and a Bart Simpson, and a Garfield. One of these days, my young nephew is bound to ask me what the hell that red thing on my bookshelf is. The Kool-Aid Man character is essentially retired. And, for the life of me, I can't understand why. Did kids stop drinking Kool-Aid? Do kids not like cartoon characters anymore? According to Wikipedia, the Kool-Aid Kool Points/Wacky Warehouse program will be discontinued after June 30 [2007]. This wouldn't be quite so sad if, say, they had a brand new promotional idea for a new generation of consumers. But it doesn't look like they do. So why end the Warehouse? Do kids no longer enjoy getting mail? Do kids no longer enjoy getting free toys? Have things changed that much? I guess the beverage trend these days is "energy drinks." Your Red Bulls and Amps and Full Throttles. Gatorade has been able to position itself in that market as well. So the question is, why doesn't Kool-Aid do the same thing? I offer the following ideas at no charge to the Kraft General Foods company. My reward will be to see my beloved Kool-Aid Man endure. Kraft: Create a new line of highly caffeinated, guarana- and taurine-infused Kool-Aid flavors. Call it, oh, I don't know, "Kool-Aid Extreme." Or maybe "X-treme." People like things to be "extreme" these days. Or give it some meaningless number, like "Kool-Aid 180" or "Kool-Aid 2.0!" Tell you what... I haven't given much thought to the name thing, so you can come up with your own name for it. The important thing is... This is the perfect opportunity to bring back Kool-Aid Man! I mean, the dude was always a spazz; what, with destroying walls and parachuting onto cars and speeding around on motorcycles. You know, just generally making people uncomfortable. THAT'S the Kool-Aid Man I want to see returned to the spotlight. And if you give him the excuse that he's all tweaked out on crack-laced Kool-Aid, then all the more reason for him to run around wrecking the place. It's so obvious, isn't it?!
Oh, and one last note, Kraft: none of this computer animated garbage. I seem to recall, shortly before Kool-Aid Man disappeared altogether, the man-in-a-giant-pitcher-costume was retired in favor of the ghetto-est computer animation ever. Uh-uh. I insist that you put a real, living human inside of a giant, awkward, overheated, foam-rubber costume. THAT is what Kool-Aid Man is. Now get to work on that and, in a few years, get back to me on how to revitalize the Wacky Warehouse.