Generative AI in the communications industry-Reassessment of the Attention economy

International research project

Sino-German Institute of Branding at the Zhejiang Wanli University, Ningbo
Brand University Hamburg – Department Design HAW Hamburg

Attention has long been recognized as one of the most valuable resources in human life. Whether it’s in the context of education, marketing, or relationships, capturing and holding someone’s attention often translates into various forms of success. Over time, this dynamic has given rise to what is now commonly known as the “attention economy,” a complex system where the human focus is traded and commodified.

The rise of generative AI technology is transforming this attention economy at its very core. Traditionally, the attention economy has operated based on a straightforward equation: the amount of time an individual can successfully capture another’s attention correlates directly with the effectiveness of the respective effort. To achieve this, a considerable amount of resources are expended in the creation of audiovisual content that is meticulously tailored—both in content and form—to meet the needs of the target audience. This pursuit has spawned an entire industry, from marketing firms to social media platforms, each vying for a slice of our collective attention span.

Generative AI technology is disrupting this longstanding equation by changing the variable of time, thereby shaking the foundation of the attention economy itself. With the advent of intelligent machines, there’s now the potential to hold human attention for a theoretically infinite duration. Algorithms can adapt in real-time, offering personalized, captivating content on the fly, reducing the effort needed to keep the audience engaged. In other words, while human content creators might spend days or weeks devising a campaign or project, generative AI can do so instantly and continually, making adjustments that fine-tune its effectiveness in real time. The dramatic reduction in effort is facilitated by smart tools that either replace or complement human roles in the content creation process.

Important questions

  • What does the future collaboration of creatives with machines look like?
  • What degree of control and influence do people have in the overall process, and what is important, necessary, or possible?
  • What qualifications and skills must these individuals possess?
  • What role will trained creatives play in the future, and which tasks can be computer-assisted or managed by individuals without creative training?
  • How exactly can qualitative control be exercised by humans, and with which tools?

Additionally, there are concerns regarding the content itself:

  • How can we ensure that attention packages not only repeat familiar content but also stand out from the deluge through surprise and novel combinations?
  • How can we prevent aesthetic, cultural, and social patterns from being unquestionably reproduced?

Moreover, brands and communication campaigns must adapt:

  • How should brands and campaigns be designed to be consistent yet flexible in both content and form?
  • Which intelligent tools can be deployed at various stages of the communication process to assist in this adaptation?

Research Objective

As stakeholders navigate this rapidly evolving landscape, the focus must not just be on leveraging generative AI’s capabilities, but also on asking the right questions to guide its integration into the attention economy. While generative AI represents a powerful tool for capturing human attention, the key to long-term success lies in a thoughtful approach to its implementation—one that addresses these complex questions.

The objective is to provide a snapshot of this development and to allow different players to have their say: Brands and communication driving companies, agencies and service providers, technology companies and media and distribution platforms.

Project Setup

The research project is run by the Research Institute of Brand Sciences at the Sino-German Faculty of Branding at the Zhejiang Wanli University and the research focus of the Department of Design at HAW Hamburg, Germany.

The project has several project phases. The first current, initial phase is developing a network of specialists and industry insiders with the aim of a joint publication and possibly an online conference event.

Responsible for the project

Prof. Peter Kabel, Department of Design at HAW Hamburg, Germany.
Prof. Zhang Yiping, Sino-German Faculty of Branding of the Zhejiang Wanli University, Ningbo
Prof. Dr. Stefan Waller, Brand University Hamburg, Sino-German Faculty of Branding of the Zhejiang Wanli University, Ningbo

Project assistance

吕谨男, Jinnan Lyu (Lucas)
王行楷,Xingkai Wang (Scribe)


Joint Institute of the Zhejiang Wanli University 
and the Brand University of Applied Sciences
Research Institute of Brand Sciences
Zhejiang Wanli University
Block A, Building 51, Zhejiang Wanli College,
No. 8 Qianhu South Road, Ningbo City