Pay Attention Ladybird

There’s a scene in the 2017 movie Ladybird where Ladybird, the main character – a rebellious high school senior, is reviewing her college essay with her adviser, Sister Mary Joan. Despite Ladybird’s strong desire to get as far away from her home town of Sacramento as possible, we find out that the city is the central theme of her essay. Her adviser tells her that she can tell she really loves Sacramento. Ladybird is surprised by her interpretation. The nun explains she can tell she pays attention, because isn’t that what love is? Paying attention to the details? It’s one of several fleeting yet profound moments in the movie.

NPR’s Hidden Brain just ran an episode with Tim Wu on his book, “The Attention Merchants.” In the book and the interview, they cover the commoditization of attention. Behold young Ladybird – this is the dark side of Sister Mary Joan’s sentiment. If you’ve seen the movie, this is where Ladybird’s class awareness and desire to be on the east coast for college stem from.

If we view Ladybird’s “attention” as natural, in that it’s born by unfiltered life experience, Wu lays out the processed version of attention via the history of the companies who recognized how to capture and profit from it. Wu explains in marvelous marketing class detail what Cialdini calls “click, whirr,” and how none of us are outside their reach.

As we all well know, stimulation yields responses, which are frequently automatic and rationalized with hindsight. Wu follows that trend across time and mediums, from radio to TV to the internet.

We are all in the business of engineering moments (extra Heath, see yesterday’s note). That’s as true for our families as it is for our clients, as it is for our bosses and coworkers. Like the role of the nun in Ladybird, what starts with an emotional response also needs to be interpreted.

Since there can be multiple interpretations, guiding a moment towards positive interpretations CAN be noble. As Google used to say, “Don’t be evil.” We may be attention merchants, but we also have to remember the lesson of Ladybird. Sister Mary Joan, you’ve got a lot to teach us.