The Attention Merchants

Monday, 16 Jan 2017

I recently finished reading The Attention Merchants. Its author, Tim Wu, analyzes the evolution of the business of capturing people’s attention, which is dominated by advertising.

It all started in 1833 in New York City, with the first ad-supported newspaper, The New York Sun. Until then newspapers were expensive and were only accessed by a privileged minority. Ads, which at that time were seen as informative, made possible the publishing of an affordable newspaper. But at that moment new paradigm emerged: the selling and re-selling of people’s attention. From the first affordable newspaper to radio shows to soap operas to TV shows and later websites, that paradigm is still in place. And, while that empowers people to have access to certain content, the issue with that is that advertising has evolved to become more and more intrusive with each new technological advance.

These are some of the points that I found interesting:

  • States and governments didn’t use to have the need to advertise themselves. In fact, some air of inaccessibility was desirable (especially with royalty). All that changed with Britain’s need to recruit soldiers for WWI. The original “I want you” poster, which captures attention with a pointed finger at the viewer, was designed back then.

  • One of the first businesses to rely heavily on ads was the patent medicine sellers (who offered, literally, snake oil).

  • The term propaganda comes from religion (the propagation of faith).

  • Don Draper’s “it’s toasted” strategy was used in real life by Lucky Strike in the 1920s (way before Mad Men’s time period).

  • Before radio, advertising was an exclusive occurrence of the outdoors. Homes, except for the eventual door-to-door salesman, were excluded from all sorts of advertising.

  • Radio allowed something that hadn’t been possible in the history of humanity until then: the concentration of masses on a single speech in real time. That would be of utmost importance for persuasion, since there are theories that suggest that people in a crowd are more malleable.

  • A commercial psychologist called Ernest Dichter (known as “Mr. Mass motivation”) came with a theory for Chrysler Plymouths, which were offered in convertible and sedan models: for men, convertibles are like a mistress, offering adventure and excitement; and, even if they were more likely to buy (marry) the comfortable and familiar sedan, convertibles made for a better pull to the showroom.

  • The first remote control on a TV, offered by Zenith, can be seen as history’s first adblocker. In a sense it would backfire. Because it allows effortless channel surfing or zapping, it makes it easy to enter a state of mindlessness wander.

  • The first national effort to collect analytics and segment the market was called PRIZM (Potential Ratings in ZIP Markets). It classified the US population into segments or clusters along geographical locations. It changed the heretofore established view that the US population was a collective whole.

  • As it happened with the remote control on TVs, “technologies designed to increase our control over our attention will sometimes have the very opposite effect. [Because] they open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all.

  • The {A, B, C, D}-list scale for actors is a formal thing: the Ulmer scale.

  • The “celebrification” of regular people, many of whom put the effort not to make money, but just for the satisfaction of getting some of that attention, may be one of the greatest strategies that attention merchants ever came up with. At a minimum, it provides cheap content.

  • It was Vince Gilligan who coined the term “hyperserial”. Originally referring to Breaking Bad, it describes the new kind of TV where the plot is the priority and it demands viewers to follow closely and to not miss episodes. That kind of content was made possible once ads got out of the way.

  • There’s a mention of this quote by William James on how our lives are what we pay attention to:

One of the most extraordinary facts of our life is that, although we are besieged at every moment by impressions from our whole sensory surface, we notice so very small a part of them. The sum total of our impressions never enters into our experience, consciously so called, which runs through this sum total like a tiny rill through a broad flowery mead. Yet the physical impressions which do not count are there as much as those which do, and affect our sense-organs just as energetically. Why they fail to pierce the mind is a mystery, which is only named and not explained when we invoke die Enge des Bewusstseins, ‘the narrowness of consciousness,’ as its ground.

  • This quote from Chapter 26 about the current general state of the web:

Once a commons that fostered the amateur eccentric in every area of interest, the web, by 2015, was thoroughly overrun by commercial junk, much of it directed at the very basest human impulses of voyeurism and titillation.

So, it seems inevitable that advertising-supported media will sooner or later end up altering its contents to fit the model. It only takes one member of the competition to get greedy for everybody to get involved in an arms-race for attention.

Whether its clickbait, or fake news or (pseudo)-celebrities’ pictures, the main goal is to maximize a number. And taking a look at the things that for most people represent technology, social media and entertainment, everything is designed from the ground up not to be efficient and useful, but to be addictive and to extract every single bit of information possible in order to continue the ad bombarding and the attention grabbing in an endless cycle.