Book review: The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu
“The attention merchants” is a history of the advertising industry. For a product to find its buyers, potential purchasers need to know about its existence. When the production of goods was limited and economies mostly local, word of mouth or reputation were enough to fulfill this information role. This changed in the 19th century, with a fast increase in production. With information abundant, people’s attention became a scarce resource to compete for.
This is when a new economic model was created in which it is profitable to gather a large audience and sell its attention - via an ad- to the highest bidder. An early example is the creation of tabloids in New York in 1833; where established newspapers strived to produce a product worth reading for a fee (with adverts considered only a extra source of revenue), tabloids cut down the production and hence the retail price of newspaper by a huge factor and focused on sensational or gossipy topics that gathered wide audiences. Advertising spaces on these were then sold to companies hoping their ads would reach more eyeballs.
From this moment, this model kept expanding and adapted to the new forms of media: the radio, television, the internet. The history of advertising is a story of trials and errors, of the upset of social conventions or values (for example the journalist’s ethic with tabloids), successes, excesses, and in the end backlashes.
The creation of the FDA in 1906 is the outcome of one of these backlashes. Surfing on the booming efficiency of the craft of curating the message that will sell, the patent medicine industry prospered on the selling of at best harmless and for sure cheap to make products under outlandish and fake promises: curing all diseases or bringing eternal life. When the lies and large scale harms of this industry were exposed, the public outcry led to new regulations, and a new defiance towards advertising.
Wu tells the story of these cycles until today. Despite many backlashes, the industry always grows back stronger. He describes the spread of advertising, in space, as it expands to new medias and areas of existence (the private space of the home with the radio, the living room with the tv) and time, with the increase of the daily hours when our attention is harvested (the average American teenager spends an average of 7+ hours on their smartphone, most of which on social media). Wu also tells the story of manipulation turned into a science, and of the power and hubris of those who harness it for political reasons or for profit.
It is fascinating to discover the attention merchants at play during my own lifetime with the last efforts to save television and the early experiments with the internet. Today, targeted advertising is the dominating force that turned Facebook and Google into some of the largest companies in the world. Wu argues that as the shareholders of these companies push for revenue - through more intrusive advertising - we may be at the verge of a new backlash.
Published in 2016, The book ends with a word of caution about the dangers of living a distracted life. Having surrendered all our waking hours to advertisers we may be losing touch with what matters to us and to society.
The key merits of this book are to take perspective and to unpack the mechanisms of the advertising industry. It is a hopeful book, history tells us that after the excesses and harms, society strikes back. Wu urges us to pay a closer look to the implicit contract we sign with advertisers and to be always vigilant to track and renegotiate the terms.