The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu

Our advertising questions should focus on where and when we are targeted, says Ciaran Driver

January 4, 2018
Times Square, New York
Source: iStock

Advertising has always found arguments to justify itself. It brings information; allows personal expression; signals quality; creates competition; and lubricates economic growth. Such claims are treated with far too much reverence in textbooks and are mostly refutable.

Timothy Wu’s book does a different kind of demolition job on advertising’s self-conceit. It offers a historical account – sometimes sombre but often hilarious – of the methods and postures that have characterised the industry from the late 19th century. It recounts the story of (literal) snake oil and its echoes down the decades (orange juice for babies, smoking for a better singing voice) as weak regulation allowed the industry to survive, “mostly unregenerate”. The main check on advertising was either technological, as with the remote control or ad-blocking, or regulation triggered by consumers, exemplified by the limiting of poster adverts in early 20th-century Paris.

These checks were never knockout blows. Advertising was boosted by the success of state war propaganda. Later, housed in fast-growing corporations familiar from Mad Men, the industry refined techniques that remain relevant today: demand engineering, branding and targeted ads. The story told here is complex and multilevel. Advertising survived the counter-culture years from the 1950s by flexible adaptation. Wu interleaves accounts of Pepsi-Cola’s radical ads with critiques by Marshall McLuhan and Timothy Leary, who had hoped for the end of consumerist culture. There seems little doubt as to who ended up co-opting whom; advertising won because the demand for individuation was something that it could cater to. Not for the first nor the last time, the attention merchants were left “stronger than they’d ever been”.

There is a tension in the book between Wu’s evident distaste for attention harvesting and his sense of how complicit the public is until things go too far. With channel surfing, the public “frittered away” attention that advertisers had previously had to harvest; social media offered the attention drug that left people “with the scars of constant attention whoredom”. As his story progresses through accounts of the four screens (print, television, internet and social media), his focus turns more to the mutual dependence between all forms of attention-seeking and their audiences. The pressing question, Wu says, is not whether advertising is good, bad or a necessary evil but rather the individual and social challenges of its scope – “where and when attention should be harvested”.

Wu’s constant use of the word “harvested” signifies something sacrificed, since time and concentration are not reproducible. Invoking the philosopher William James, his view is that what we spend – or are led to spend – attention on largely determines our lives. In the age of TV, this was already evident: “For the first time, to be at home and awake was, for most people, to be sold something.” But social media have raised the stakes. Big decisions are now being taken without much public deliberation over the consequences. Rather, as the closing chapters of this book attest, important outcomes tend to be a by-product of strategic competition plays inside the media oligopoly. Wu counsels individual resistance, but adds that the “worst excesses may have no remedy but law”.

Ciaran Driver is professor of economics at Soas, University of London.


The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads
By Tim Wu
Atlantic Books
432pp, £9.99
ISBN 9781782394853
Paperback published 7 September 2017

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Print headline: Buy! Buy! Buy! Sell! Sell! Sell!

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