Grabbing Our Attention

I am usually a very fast reader, but it has taken me a few weeks to get through Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Out Heads“.  The time it took had nothing to do with lack of quality; far from it: it takes time to digest the immense amount of fascinating information that Wu packs into every illuminating page of this history of advertising and other attention-grabbing industries for the last 200 years.

To begin, Wu walks us through the invention of posters in Paris, the introduction of the New York Sun, the wily ways of Clark Stanley — the original “snake oil” medical miracle salesman — and the hugely successful World World One conscription propaganda — “Uncle Sam Needs YOU.”  He then engagingly introduces us to the inventors of modern advertising — Claude Hopkins, George Creel, and Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.

The story of attention grabbing moves onto the modern era with the invention of radio.  Wu reminds us that in those idealistic days, it was believed that advertising should stop at the household door. “The family circle,” opined Printers Ink magazine, “is not a public place and advertising has no business intruding there unless invited.” Herbert Hoover, talking about the wonder of radio, wrote in 1922 that it “is inconceivable that that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment .. to be drowned in advertising chatter.”  But those high  principles were quickly overridden when NBC agreed to take $1 million from Pepsodent to sponsor the Amos ‘n’ Andy show.

Not only did Amos ‘m’ Andy brings us radio advertising, it was also the precursor of all future soap operas, sitcoms, and invented prime time. The show broadcast at 7:00pm each evening, and was so popular other businesses — hotels, restaurants, and movie houses — changed their schedules to match the radio show.

Wu tells a riveting story about the development of radio and how it became a personal battle between “General” David Sarnoff of NBC (who wanted to use radio content to sell radio sets) and William S. Paley of the upstart CBS who countered with “quality” content.  But as Wu shows persuasively it was the Third Reich that developed radio into a medium so powerful that “80 million people were deprived of independent thought” and made them “subject to the will of one man.”

After the war, television became the prime attention grabber:

“… the lights were usually turned off for viewing, and there was little or no conversation. One only got us to change the channel. ‘We are our suppers in silence, spilling our food, gaping in awe’ said one woman in 1950.”

Wu covers the first ratings systems (the inventor of which bemoaned their misuse), the invention of the remote control (originally designed to mute commercials), the age of advertising’s Motivational Research, the game show frenzy, and the scandals that ended them).  We may have gotten some classic entertainment, but in return, as Vance Packard’s 1957 masterpiece “The Hidden Persuaders” noted “manufacturers, fund-raisers, and politicians are attempting to turn the American mind into a kind of catatonic dough that will buy, give, or vote at their command.”

With the coming of cable, Fox and others chased audiences they they believed had fallen through the cracks of mainstream network broadcasting. Diversity was the war cry, attention was both more scattered and more available, and advertisers loved it.

Part three of the book deals with “the third screen” — computers and online services.  Wu covers this in depth and tells a good story about how some of the early visionaries hated advertising but, in a myriad different ways, were sucked into showing it everywhere.  Attention became even more ubiquitous:

“by 2000, change had come … Millions of people — soon to be hundreds of millions and then billions — were now spending leisure time logging in, catching up on email, attending to other business, or chatting to strangers.”

Online check-in had become a constant ritual. And each check-in allowed advertisers to reach us, and for the tech giants to know us more intimately than even our lovers.

The book closes by remarking on the “fourth screen”, the mobile phone without which it seems most cannot live. Check-ins are now essentially constant. The mobile phone

“would become the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchant’s manifest destiny. From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes too, and of course the ads.”

Wu quotes Mark Manson:

“This is life now: one constant never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.”

But does any of this matter?  Clearly it does. Wu ends his book with a chapter on the election of Donald Trump as US President.  Trump, he says, is “determined to be a president who rarely, if ever, disappears from the public view.” He cares “maybe most of all about being the centre of national attention and about his ratings.”

One hundred years ago, Edward Bernays wrote that without political advertising, the public “could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so they had to be guided from above.”  The election of Donald Trump may well prove that quite the opposite is true.

I know I haven’t done justice to what is a marvellously observed, erudite, funny and thorough history of a subject that has come to dominate our lives.  It is well worth the read.

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