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The Attention Merchants: How Our Time and Attention Are Gathered and Sold Paperback
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This book is timely and clever. The evolutionary twists and turns in the parallel developments of (fake) news and advertising are artfully told.
I love the opening story about the first one-cent paper in New York in 1833 (I won't ruin it here) and Mr Wu's capacity for "storifying" complex information is put to good use throughout the book.
He also sets the current debates about information battles and partisanship in a historical context that I hope more commentators will pick up on.
I could say more, but I'll leave you to enjoy it. Congrats, Mr Wu.
How did we get to this juncture? Author Wu has his theories - beginning with Benjamin Day's 1833 'New York Sun' - the first newspaper partly dependent on advertising. By the end of 1932, it claimed 5,000 readers/day, and was also en route to creating 'public opinion.' My explanation is simply that advertising has mushroomed over recent decades because offshoring has taken away so many opportunities for R&D and manufacturing creativity, advertising and financial engineering are all that's left. Harvesting human attention and reselling it has become a major part of our economy, and as Wu points out, beginning with radio, each new medium (TV, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, spam/junk mail, robo-calls, fake news, pop-up ads, etc.) attained its commercial viability through resale of attention in exchange for its 'free' content. Fortunately we're able to 'tune out.'
Continuing, one learns the origin of the term 'snake oil' (Charles Stanley would asphyxiate a snake, plunge it into boiling water, then skinned off the fatty remnants that rose to the top and mix it into an elixir - 'Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment'). Other patent medicine's promised quick cures for nearly any ailment, even immortality - much like today's lotions and potions and exotic ingredients like antioxidants, miracle fruits (eg pomegranate), special extracts, new technology (eg. triple reverse osmosis in some water brands, gold-plating of audio component cables). Then came free samples. By the turn of the century, patent medicines were generating revenues of $45+ million/year ($1.3+ billion today).
Then came Samuel Hopkins Adams, crime reporter at the New York Sun. He purchased many patent medications (including Stanley's Snake Oil) and hired chemists to analyze them. 'Collier's' published his expose on 10/7/1905, detailing not only the ingredients (sometimes dangerous, mostly alcohol, opiates and narcotics, one was highly diluted sulfuric acid), but also the deaths and addictions users suffered, and the non-existence of endorsers. Shortly afterwards came Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle,' support from Teddy Roosevelt, and the FDA. 'Snake Oil' went from being a cure-all to a byword for fraud, and most of the vendors went out of business.
Advertising's next major appearance came across the Atlantic in 1914 - England had just declared war on Germany, but had only 80,000 regulars ( a few hundred thousand, if reserves were included) - vs. Germany's 4.5 million (including reserves). Conscription was ruled out by tradition and policy - thus Lord Kitchener turned to advertising. Within a month 30,000/day were signing up, 750,000 within two months. The most successful tool turned out to be posters, originated in France about 60 years ago. By the war's end, England had printed about 54 million. The most famous showed Kitchener sternly pointing a monstrously big finger at the viewer, exclaiming 'I Want you.' Massive parades and rallies were also used. Ultimately, the military still needed to resort to conscription. When similar advertising spread to America, Walter Lippmann noted that it had been used to 'manufacture' the 'consent' of the governed to support entering the war.
After WWI came the rise of big advertising firms - J. Walter Thompson, BBDO, etc. Total consumption expenditures increased 255 from 1923 to 1929. Demand engineering (presenting the product as a cure to an existing possibly unknown problem; discovery later of Vitamin C created the miracle ingredient), creating brand loyalty (Coca-Cola, Cadillac), and targeted advertising (Woodbury soap - changed the focus from inventor Dr. Woodbury to softness and romance) were focused on.
Lucky Strike went from pursuing health benefits (removal of irritating ingredients via roasting and U.V. light, weight loss) to persuading women to smoke them - especially in public. (Bans against their smoking in public were depicted as an abridgement of their freedom.) Smoking rates among women tripled from the 1920s to the mid-1930s.
With the Depression came a reaction to manufactured demand and questions about the accuracy of claims. The FTCs effort to reign in Lucky Strike's health and weight-loss claims was undermined by a Supreme Court 1931 decision that it didn't have the power to do so.
Wu then continues by describing the types of offerings that attracted attention over the subsequent decades, as well as more than a bit of the 'ratings wars.' Also interesting to read Hitler's observations - German WWI war propaganda had made the error of jumping into the complex merits of an issue before having engaged the listener. (U.S. and British propaganda largely avoided that error with heavy use of vivid images on posters.) In Mein Kampf he suggested propaganda needed to be like advertising (he'd dabbled in the area as a poster illustrator) and seek first to attract attention. The targeted audience should be low - appealing to a greater mass of people. During WWII, the Propaganda Ministry's answer to people not turning on its programs was to outfit a 'Radio Guard' with members assigned every area who herded all the people into listening rooms.