Book Review : ‘The Attention Merchants’ by Tim Wu

The business of selling requires that the target consumer pays attention at the very least, for without attention, there is no interest, no sale, and no market. Even, and especially so, with services that are sold and advertised as free, there is still a valuable personal resource that is sold in exchange – your time.

Tim Wu’s book is an engrossing, well-researched, and fascinating look into the evolution of the advertising business – the attention merchants, as he calls them. It helps put into perspective many of the advertising practices we see today.

Each one of Brahma’s days may well be more than four billion years long, but for humans, the time available to each one of us is far limited in comparison. What we do with the time available to us is decided by what we choose to pay attention to. The job of those looking to sell us their wares is to take a bite out of that span of attention and to broker it to the other party in the transaction.

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The idea that a service could be provided for free in exchange for the consumer’s attention is not a new one. It owes its birth to the ingenuity of a twenty-three old Benjamin Day, who, in 1833, came across the of selling his publication, the New York Sun, for the royal sum of one cent a copy. It competed against New York City’s leading newspaper at the time, “The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, a four-page daily with a circulation of just 2,600 in a city of almost 300,000.1 At 6 cents, it was something of a luxury item.” At the loss-making price of one cent, every copy sold for a loss, but it came filled with often unsolicited advertisements. “A little after three months, the balance turned, and the New York Sun became profitable.” Thus was born the concept that attention could be brokered into money.

Almost two hundred years ago, therefore, began a race to the bottom that continues to this day. Parallels from the nineteenth century can be found all over the world today. Whether it is atrocity journalism practised by some venerable media houses in the United States or disaster journalism in India and elsewhere, one of the intentions remains the same – capture attention. Observers of Indian tabloid journalism and mainstream media would not be surprised at the case of Gordon Bennett, a competitor to Benjamin Day, who was “a shameless braggart who promoted himself as a paragon of gentility while also feeding the public’s appetite for the lurid and debauched … Bennett would pioneer on-the-scene crime reporting, beginning with his sensational account of the murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute killed with a hatchet and left on a burning bed. Bennett was let in to see the naked corpse:

It was the most remarkable sight I ever beheld….“My God” I exclaimed, “how like a statue!” The body looked as white, as full, as polished as the purest marble. The perfect figure, the exquisite limbs, fine face, the full arms, the beautiful bust, all surpassed, in every respect, the Venus de Medici….For a few moments, I was lost in admiration of the extraordinary sight….I was recalled to her horrid destiny by seeing the dreadful bloody gashes on the right temple.

That Bennett the media-man was also the media’s first troll should not also come as a surprise. “Bennett loved to gain attention for his paper by hurling insults and starting fights. Once he managed in a single issue to insult seven rival papers and their editors.

More than commerce, more than modern management fads and theories, if one has to understand the modern advertising machine, one has to look at organized religion, and the Church. Modern-day advertising owes much to the practices of organized religion.

“organized religion had long taken human attention as its essential substrate. This is especially true of monotheisms, whose demands for a strict adherence to the one true God naturally promote an ideal of undivided attention.

At the dawn of the attention industries, then, religion was still, in a very real sense, the incumbent operation, the only large-scale human endeavour designed to capture attention and use it.”

The term snake-oil salesman is used to refer to an unethical salesman who knowingly sells fake goods. The phrase has very literal roots and traces its origins to Clark Stanley, one of the “most successful advertisers in America” who plied his trade in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

“While spectators watched, Clark would reach into a sack, pluck out a fresh snake, asphyxiate it with ether, and plunge it into a pot of boiling water. As he did so, fatty remnants of the snake rose to the top, which Clark skimmed and, on the spot, mixed into an elixir. The resulting potion he called “Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment” and sold to onlookers. The Snake Oil, Clark boasted, had the power to cure many ailments: it was “good for man and beast.”

Such snake oil was advertised as a sure shot remedy for all kinds of ailments, like “rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago, contracted muscles, toothache, sprains, swellings, etc“. In short, such snake oil was guaranteed to “cure any and every disease that is known to the human body.

Leaving snake oil salesmen aside, the birth of modern advertising – advertising as we understand it today – owes itself to innovations of the 1920s. In its basic form, advertising has not changed much in a century, and the principles devised then are in vogue even today – “demand engineering“, “branding“, and “targeted” advertisements. Such inventiveness led to the re-branding of a floor cleaner as a cure-all for bad breath – halitosis. Listerine had been a floor cleaner, and a disinfectant used on the battlefield. In a seven-year period, Listerine company’s annual earnings grew almost seventy-fold. Similarly, a floor cleaner became a “Champion of Women’s Rights, Shredded Wheat cereal became a “Declaration of Independence“, bad breath could leave a girl unmarried, and so on. There was no shame in shaming women into buying. Buying goods was good. Buying brands goods even better.

More fundamental changes to society, however, were required to break through barriers to reach the hitherto unreached. Till about a hundred years ago, the custom in the western world was that women did not smoke. That meant that the total addressable market for tobacco products could be doubled overnight if only cigarette smoking could be made acceptable to women. Enter Edward Bernays, master-manipulator, a journalist turned press agent and nephew of Sigmund Freud. He “hired a group of attractive women to march in the 1929 New York City Easter Day Parade, brandishing their Lucky Strikes, or “torches of freedom.” He had paid Ruth Hale, a prominent feminist, to sign the letter inviting the women to the march. “Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!” While historians are divided over the precise magnitude of the impact this march had, what is not in dispute is the tripling in the rate of smoking among women from the 1920s to the mid-1930s. Cigarettes were even advertised as a way for women to keep slim – “To keep a slender figure, no one can deny…Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” went the slogan. Naked greed and astute manipulation of public opinion combined to gift to women the gift of cancer, packaged as emancipation, and endorsed by faux feminists. One wonders whether the situation has changed much in the intervening ninety years.

Advertising built and grew in its early period on the back of the distortion of the “mechanisms of choice“. But this could only grow the market so much. Advertising alone was insufficient to protect the market from regulation or oversight. It became important, therefore, to also subvert the legal mechanisms for controlling and curbing false or misleading advertising claims. Manipulation of public opinion was now steered in a new direction – the misshaping of public policy. So when the FDR administration put out the Tugwell-bill (so named after Rexford Tugwell, an economist at the Agriculture Department (the precursor to the FDA)), that was tough on false labeling, false advertising, a canard of innuendo and attacks began on Tugwell. “that he was a communist agent trying to import socialism.

“Sensing their very viability was at stake, the newspapers, food producers, and drug manufacturers formed a tight phalanx with the advertising industry, doing everything they could, even funding front groups, until they were sure the Tugwell Bill would go down in flames.”

In 1938, a far weaker law passed.

If this sounds like ancient history, it should not. It. Should. Not. Because history repeats itself. In 2015, when Apple released iOS 9, the latest version of its mobile operating system and which ran such popular devices as the iPhone and iPad, it included support for adblocking extensions in its Safari browser. One analyst called it an “atomic bomb.” By the end of 2015, “an estimated 100 to 200 million Americans were now using some kind of adblocker some of the time.” What about the advertising industry? Its reactions were along predictable lines [emphasis mine]:

‘Ad blocking is robbery, plain and simple,’ opined Ad Age.10 ‘Ad-blocking threatens democracy,’ pronounced the president of the Newspaper Association of America; the industry also released a study estimating that $22 billion of revenue was being destroyed and warned of far worse. ‘Every time you block an ad,’ wrote another editor, ‘what you’re really blocking is food from entering a child’s mouth.’

That Apple’s strategy was also a deft manoeuvre against its competitor, Google and its mobile operating system, Android, was not entirely coincidental. Android was Google’s foray into harvesting the attention of smartphone users, to be sold to advertisers.

“In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin had written that reliance on advertising would inevitably make it difficult to create the best possible product; in the late 2010s, in competition with Apple, they faced their own prophecy.”

In reaction to the unbridled nature of invasive and pervasive advertising and digital snooping would be born the model of companies like Netflix. While the company began life by renting out DVDs of movies it sent in mailers to customers, by 2010 it had expanded into streaming movies over the internet for its subscribers. In 2011, Netflix made an enormous and hugely ambitious, boom-or-bust bet by putting down an estimated $100 million for exclusive rights to two, thirteen-episode, seasons of the American remake of the British political drama, House of Cards. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2013, Netflix went one step ahead, and released “all thirteen episodes of House of Cards at once.” It discovered that thousands of its subscribers watched all episodes in a single session of viewing – binge watching. With Netflix spending billions of dollars on content – licensed as well as original – it was threatening not only the traditional Hollywood model of business but also the cable television’s model built on advertising. And, not in the very least, it was also plunging a deep dagger into the internet’s incumbent model of advertising-laden content. Which way this battle will veer is still years away from a decisive result.

The second generation of advertising, that followed print advertising, was radio advertising. Television, cable, the internet. In the 1920s, while some radio shows were sponsored, the general idea of advertising on the radio was unheard of. Future president Herbert Hoover had considered it “inconceivable” that radio is drowned in “advertising chatter.” That changed with “Amos ‘n’ Andy“, a fifteen-minute “serial” around two Negro characters, voiced by white actors, that launched on NBC in August 1928. By 1929, it became a superhit, with people moving their schedules around it. NBC paid a million dollars for the serial, and the sponsor was Pepsodent. More serials followed, since “Amos ‘n’ Andy” “demonstrated that an industry could, in effect, wholly “own” a part of the day.” As the evening hours were colonized under the name of “Prime Time“, so were the remaining hours of the day.

Radio shows like this opened a much larger market for companies like CBS, who offered independent radio stations “all of its sustaining content for free“. The only condition, if it can be called that, was that the radio stations “agree to carry the sponsored content as well.” For carrying this sponsored content, the stations would get paid as well! Why? In this way, CBS was buying the attention of millions of people across the country. As far as the radio stations were concerned, all this was for free. Nor did the consumers complain. The only loss was the loss of independence of independent radio stations.

A century of relentless advertising meant that the consumer was ready to pay for content, as long as it meant “peace and quiet“, was “hardly good news for the attention merchants or their brokers in the advertising industry.” What Tim Wu calls for, and argues for, is a sort of “human reclamation project“, where “consciousness and mental space” are sought to be placed beyond the reaches of the attention merchants, even if it is for short periods of time. This is by no means an easy objective to achieve, as all of us who have tried various forms of “digital detox” diets at one point or the other. However, if we as individuals are to survive this century with our identity and sense of self, the attention merchants need to be separated from our attention. If anything, this will prove even more difficult than the author may imagine. A new breed of intrusive, omnipresent, robots have made their emergence in the last couple of years – smart speakers like Amazon EchoApple HomePod, or Google Home, that sit like furniture in our homes, always listening, always connected to the internet, always sending data back, always refining their understanding of humans-as-consumers. The battle may only be intensifying.

This is one of the most important books to come out in recent times, and certainly one of the most remarkable books I read in 2017.

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