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The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 18, 2016
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“Comprehensive and conscientious…Wu writes with elegance and clarity…[his] chapters about the early days of advertising are some of this book’s most enjoyable, easily serving as a reader’s companion to “Mad Men.” Mr. Wu concludes his book with a cri de coeur, imploring us to regain custody of our attention, written so rousingly that it just may make you reconsider your priorities.”
–Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
“Compelling…sharp…Wu [is] a skilled thinker…he applies the thesis of a business cycle to explain the development of the advertising market and the ways in which it has adapted to avoid our natural inclination to ignore it…Wu dramatizes this push and pull to great effect…a “Hidden Persuaders” for the 21st century, just as we stand squarely on the threshold of a post-broadcast world where the algorithmic nano-targeting of electronic media knows our desires and impulses before we know them ourselves.”
–Emily Bell, The New York Times Book Review
“A startling and sweeping examination of the increasingly ubiquitous commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention…We’ve become the consumers, the producers, and the content. We are selling ourselves to ourselves.”
—Tom Vanderbilt, The New Republic
–Jacob Weisberg, The New York Review of Books
“Lively…An engrossing study of what we hate about commercial media…Vigorous and amusing, filled with details of colorful hucksterism and cunning attention-grabbing ploys along with revealing insights into the behavioral quirks they instill in us.”
“Part history and part social wake up call, this book is for everyone.”
“Forget subliminal seduction: every day, we are openly bought and sold, as this provocative book shows.”
“Tim Wu has written a profoundly important book on a problem that doesn’t get enough— well, attention. Attention itself has become the currency of the information age, and, as Wu meticulously and eloquently demonstrates, we allow it to be bought and sold at our peril.”
–James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History
“I couldn’t put this fascinating book down. Gripping from page one with its insight, vivid writing, and panoramic sweep, The Attention Merchants is also a book of urgent importance, revealing how our preeminent industries work to fleece our consciousness rather than help us cultivate it.”
–Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package
“Television entranced the masses. Digital media, more insidiously, mesmerizes each of us individually. In this revelatory book, Tim Wu tells the story of how advertisers and programmers came to seize control of our eyes and minds. The Attention Merchants deserves everyone’s attention.”
–Nicholas Carr, author of Utopia Is Creepy and The Shallows
“The question of how to get people to care about something important to you is central to religion, government, commerce, and the arts. For more than a century, America has experimented with buying and selling this attention, and Wu’s history of that experiment is nothing less than a history of the human condition and its discontents.”
–Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
About the Author
TIM WU is an author, policy advocate, and professor at Columbia University, best known for coining the term "net neutrality." In 2006, Scientific American named him one of 50 leaders in science and technology; in 2007, 01238 magazine listed him as one of Harvard's 100 most influential graduates; in 2013, National Law Journal included him in "America's 100 Most Influential Lawyers"; and in 2014 and 2015, he was named to the "Politico 50." He formerly wrote for Slate, where he won the Lowell Thomas Gold medal for Travel Journalism, and is a contributing writer for The New Yorker. In 2015, he was appointed to the Executive Staff of the Office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a senior enforcement counsel and special adviser.
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Top Customer Reviews
In his insightful history of the business of advertising, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu casts a wider net. Beginning with the advent of the penny press in the 1830s, he explores in telling detail the now centuries-long battle between the commercial interests who want to seize our attention for their own ends and the individuals who want to keep our lives private and access news, information, and entertainment without distraction. This is a colorful story, and Wu tells it well.
Though Wu opens with the introduction of the Sun in New York in 1833, his history more properly begins much later in the 19th century with the emergence of the advertising industry to sell Snake Oil and other patent medicines. (Yes, Snake Oil Liniment was actually a widely sold product Good for Man and Beast.) “From the 1890s thr0ugh the 1920s,” he writes, “there arose the first means for harvesting attention on a mass scale and directing it for commercial effect . . . [A]dvertising was the conversion engine that, with astonishing efficiency, turned the cash crop of attention into an industrial commodity.”
The penny press, Amos ‘n Andy, and pop-up ads
Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, Wu frames his story around the development of radio and the four “screens” that have dominated our attention over the decades that followed: the “silver” screen (film), television, the personal computer, and the smartphone. The author relates the history of each of these technologies as a human story, describing the often outrageous personalities who pioneered and dominated each of these media in turn. However, in focusing on radio and the four screens, Wu overlooks the billboards that mar every urban line of sight and barely mentions the direct mail that floods our mailboxes. Though less than comprehensive, his historical account is engrossing and enlightening.
Here you’ll learn about the development of propaganda by the British government in World War I and its perfection by Nazi Germany . . . the first radio serial that was a smash hit (the grossly racist “Amos ‘n Andy“) in the 1920s . . . the invention of the soap opera in the 1930s . . . the battle between the networks on radio and later on TV from the 1930s through the 1990s . . . the development of geodemographic targeting for ads in the 1970s . . . the emergence of celebrity culture in the 1980s and its perversion by reality television in the 2000s . . . the wild proliferation of blogging in the 2000s . . . the identity theft committed by Google and Facebook in the 2000s and beyond . . . and, finally, “unplugging” and the emergence of free online streaming services like Netflix in the 2010s. This is not a pretty story.
A harsh judgment
The author is not a fan of the “new media” that have come to hold our attention in recent years. “The idealists had hoped the web would be different,” he notes, “and it certainly was for a time, but over the long term it would become something of a 99-cent store, if not an outright cesspool.” Similarly, Wu’s judgment about the advertising industry is harsh. “[U]nder competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative . . .” It’s difficult to find fault with any of this.
About the author
He’s the man who coined the term “network neutrality.” A specialist in media and technology, Tim Wu has written several books and numerous articles, all nonfiction. His work has influenced the development of national media policy under the Obama Administration.
Well Tim Wu has done a masterful job of tracking the story of a changing group of people, mostly men, who have sort to harvest the attention of publics and then sell that attention to a bevy of clients, mostly advertisers of one kind or another. The overall story isn’t new: there have been many fine histories of advertising over the years, and of its effect on culture and consumers. But Wu adds to the chronicle by focusing much of his argument on the modern incarnation of the attention merchants, no longer just newspaper publishers or admen or broadcast moguls but the ones who run the massively popular websites, say a Mark Zuckerberg, that wins our attention by offering an appealing service, a lot of supposedly ‘free stuff.’ Except of course it isn’t quite free, or rather it produces a saleable product, our eyes, that can generate huge profits. And the success of such enterprise shapes the whole character of the internet, just like the fact of advertising shaped first newspapers, then radio, and finally television news and entertainment.
It’s the details of the story that especially intrigue. Thus I was taken by his bio of someone he calls the alchemist, Claude Hopkins, an adman early in the 20th century, whose successes and views had a major impact on the course of marketing throughout the next few decades. Wu has obviously done much research and thought hard about his findings. He writes well, very well indeed: the story flows easily, the arguments are clear, and his claims are always interesting, even if you might doubt his conclusions. So his suggestion a consumer revolt is brewing nowadays I liked, and hope he’s correct, but I doubt – there have been too many such claims in times past but we still live in marketing’s moment. Things change yes, styles of persuasion get updated, but the rule of the persuader persists: so the political consultant may have suffered some hard times in the past election cycle (because so many expensive campaigns failed abysmally), but the triumph of Trump (who doesn’t figure in the book) shows the huckster remains a potent figure in the American mix.
The characters I found most intriguing here, like Hopkins, weren’t just selling our attention but manufacturing attraction, making products or people or causes appealing to the various markets and publics. Because in part our attention to the free stuff doesn’t mean our submission to the wishes of the elites. There’s another step, namely the crafting of the brand or the cause, making something that captivates or, apparently, fills a need. In short the real exercise of soft power came through the efforts of the adman, although now more the ad-maker and public relations counsel, what’s been called the persuasion industry. Sometimes I had the feeling Wu’s approach emphasized attention too much, attraction too little.
But the real point is that Wu’s book provokes thought about a brand of soft power that is both ubiquitous and compelling. The only answer, unfortunately inadequate I think, is to get off the grid – don’t Facebook, don’t tweet, don’t watch television, then you can’t be sold. Except, of course, you then miss out on the free stuff.