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Book review: Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants explains how and why our time and opinions are converted into cash

From 19th century newspapers to mass television audiences and social media, businessmen have used both the hard sell and more subtle ways to gain our attention and manipulate our opinions.
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu is published by Atlantic Books.
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu is published by Atlantic Books.

‘We change the currents of trade,” said Claude Hopkins, a once-timid small-town boy from Michigan. Retired to his forest mansion at the end of the 19th century, acknowledged as the advertising industry’s first true genius, he could reflect on the power of the commodity that he had captured, traded and used throughout his career: attention. “Our very names are unknown. But there is scarcely a home, in city or hamlet, where some human being is not doing what we demand.”

The industry that Hopkins would go on to master began with a singular flash of inspiration in 1833. As newspapers spread throughout cities, mass attention capture became possible. Then, “it happened: the lift generated by paid advertising exceeded the gravity of costs. And at that point ... the world was never really the same again.” The realisation was both simple and important: the real money wasn’t in selling access to what people wanted to see on the printed page. Far more lucrative would be to sell what newspapers collected so easily: attention. The early pioneers, newspapers like The New York Sun, realised that their readers were not their consumers, they were their product. Capture attention, sell it, use it. That was the game now.

And so for more than a century, a cast of moguls, behavioural scientists, hucksters and chancers have been working out how to take your attention from you, and what to do with it once they have it. The Attention Merchants is their history. From decade to decade, it tells the story of an industry that has ridden the waves of social turmoil, consumer backlash, war and massive technological changes, and has usually come out ahead.

It is a story where the truly famous play only a supporting role; the real stars are those that spend their lives within touching distance of fame, but are not famous themselves. They control our attention, guide it, use it; but rarely have it. People like Claude Hopkins, like Ernest Dichter, the shadowy Freudian who conducted experiments on children’s motivations in his castle overlooking the Hudson River in the early 20th century. Or his contemporary William Paley, the chairman of CBS, described as “well mannered and insatiably hedonistic”, and blessed with a perfect ear for finding talent.

The Attention Merchants’ author is Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University and a heavyweight scholar of the media industry, which he now puts in the spotlight.

By the 1920s, the attention merchants had mastered the hard sell. Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was advertised on billboards as a cure for “rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago, contracted muscles, toothache, sprains, swellings, etc.” Dr James Kidd’s Elixir of Life claimed to “cure any and every disease that is known to the human body”. We learn early on, that attention, when captured, can be used to sell things the public would otherwise not want to buy. The toothpaste Pepsodent was one of the great success stories of hard selling, producing a clean feeling with an abrasive later found to be “hard and sharp enough to cut glass”. 

Coca-Cola, freedom! Through the 1930s and ’40s, the radio was king, and the use of attention changed. Social science and psychology revealed alternatives to the hard sell. Attention was increasingly used not to persuade, but to subtly shift the audience’s unthinking habits and unwitting associations. As the very mention of Coca-Cola became synonymous with the United States and its values, something started to happen. The attention merchants started to know us, their audience, better than we know ourselves. The things we think are most preciously and closely “ours”, our opinions and habits, were to become the targets of relentless manipulation.

By the 1950s, “peak attention” was reached. Tens of millions of people watched the new magic of television in awed silence in darkened rooms. These concentrated, enormous audiences were harvested by ravenous broadcasters for huge fortunes.

But the uncomfortable truth is that the reason why an audience pays attention is not the same as why others will pay to have it. A grand bargain has existed throughout the history of the attention merchants: audiences will give attention to advertisers, in exchange for something attention-worthy. Highbrow or lowbrow, a vast amount of cultural and artistic life has been produced thanks to this grand bargain, and it is the eternal balancing act of the attention merchants that has constantly set and reset the terms of the deal. 

Wu shows the reader how the grand bargain can sometimes unravel. For example, the TV news programme Camel News Caravan that didn’t think a growing link between cancer and smoking was newsworthy. The rigged TV gameshow Dotto, where the prettiest contestants kept on winning. Or the early internet service provider Prodigy, which decided to ban not only profanity from its online chatrooms but also anything that reflected badly on Prodigy or its advertisers. Even the remote control was invented, shaped like a revolver, to shoot out the adverts and to restore some control to the TV viewer in the face of relentless commercials. 

And so to the counter-culture backlash of the 1960s; what Herbert Marcuse called the “Great Refusal”. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” urged Timothy Leary in a rebellious mantra against an advertising-fuelled consumerism that had gone too far. As many young, affluent Americans did drop out, the industry went into a tailspin. But here Wu has another lesson: this is a story of constant reinvention. “No attention capture strategy has been able to stay ahead of the disenchantment effect indefinitely.” Chic, young counter-cultural advertising agencies all hungrily tapped into the anti-capitalism dollar. Pepsi found wild success with its “Think Different” campaign, seducing counter-cultural America back into the capitalist fold. 

The world never stops turning, with all the changes this brings. The history of the attention merchants is, of course, also the history of technology, and through the 1990s into the 2000s, the greatest attention harvester of all has begun to pick up speed. Google, with all the algorithms and smarts in the world, was haemorrhaging money before it too reluctantly started selling attention. And what attention – a global population which puts all its interests, needs and fears into Google’s unpretentious little search box. This is the ultimate gold mine of the attention industry.

As technology extends its reach into more parts of our lives, so can the attention merchants. First, posters appeared on walls, then voices and pictures arrived in the home. Now, your pocket buzzes and technology has worked its way into the fabric of your social life. Social media is the “most invasive attention capture apparatus yet invented”. With Facebook, your friends and family became the bait, their holidays and cat pictures the attentional sinkhole of a user base that would eventually grow larger than any country.

But Wu’s final point is his most important. Technology has now made us all into attention merchants. From the homespun blogs of the 2000s to the social media platforms of today, fame, at least “micro-fame”, now feels within all our reach, and we’re all borrowing the lessons of the attention merchants to try to get it. There’s the self-branding, the “aggressive egotism”, and the chaotic currents and storms of new kinds of viral attention that are impossible to control.

Donald Trump isn’t mentioned in the book, but his rise, based in part on his tremendous capacity to simply get people to talk about him, seems a lot less surprising after you’ve read it. Likewise, the decline of media and experts in this apparently “post-truth” world is, at least in part, simply a decline in their visibility in a world where we have so many other things to look at.

But the book’s most lasting impression is what this history tells us about ourselves. If we do open ourselves up to the attention merchants – and throughout history we often have – it is because we do not credit their hold over us, but that is our great misapprehension.

Claude Hopkins was right: attention is such a precious commodity exactly because it can be used to such reliable and powerful effect. For more than a century, our views, opinions, habits and associations have never been completely our own, and that has been a power worth billions to others. As we step into a new age, one where we are on both sides of the grand bargain, where we can hold attention as well as give it, the lessons of The Attention Merchants show us what a grim, terrible responsibility we have assumed.

Carl Miller is research director at Demos, the UK-based think tank. His debut book Power is published by William Heinemann next year.

Updated: January 19, 2017 04:00 AM

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