Book Review — Attention Merchants by Tim Wu

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This morning, I finished Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants — The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. Tim Wu is an American attorney and professor at Columbia Law School.

If you have ever seen an advertisement anywhere (who hasn’t?), then Tim wants you to know how the current affairs of advertisement came to be. The very people who seek your attention for the purpose of getting you to do something, and especially buy something are the Attention Merchants. According to Tim, this industry is relatively new — less than 200 years — for before this time those who wanted the attention of the people simply took it by force — read dictators, political and religious.

What do you think of this scenario: A school without adequate resources — poorly funded in a marginalized community — is approach by a big corporation. The corporation will provide state-of-the-art educational facilities for the students in return for children-friendly unobstructive advertisement in their schools. Would you accept it? Think about it. This is a real world proposal as detailed by the book.

Regardless of your answer, you and I would likely not be alive save for the attention merchants. Well, maybe we would be alive but to a different world, for as the book detailed, the ability of Attention Merchants to put their powers into full use is partly responsible for the victories in World War I (1914) and II (1939). Through propaganda, the British for the very first time in world history would enlist hundreds of thousands of civilians to willingly join a war they knew the odds of survival is low. How did they accomplish that? Read this book. People seeing gallows and volitionally walking into them? The British used it so well that a certain young man named Adolf Hitler was in awe. He would take it to another level in the next 3 decades.

But before then Benjamin Day — remember that name because he’s my favourite character in the book — would ensure that the masses have access to newspapers. Unlike how you see newspapers today, in the early 1800s newspapers were luxury items aimed at the business and political elite. Benjamin made them cheaper but only because he intended to supplement the mass production with what may be the world’s first true advertisement. Benjamin Day, a man before his time, could thus be considered the first attention merchant in the world.

Of course once an industry comes alive it attracts men whose works would change the industry. One of such men is a man known as Claude Hopkins, someone whose contemporaries call “advertisement full-blown genius”. If anyone ever offered you a free sample, thank Claude for pioneering the idea. Heard a refund policy, then you know Claude. He was the real Snake Oil merchant. Interestingly, Snake Oil was not always a by-word for fraud.

It became synonymous for fraud because the early advertisement industry made so many fake claims especially with regards to medicine that the government was forced to wade in. A decision that almost drove the industry out of business. From a revenue of about $3 billion (adjusted for inflation) in a nation of just 85 million in 1907 in America, it became a fringe despised business in the 1930s.

#DoYouKnow Listerine, the cure for unpleasant breath, was originated marketed as a disinfectant.

The industry would eventually be saved by inventions such as radio and television.

Many do not reckon much with radio these days, but it was through the instrument of the radio that Adolf Hitler used to win over Germans. To ensure Germans listen to his propaganda — advertisement in government (which by the way was not always a bad word), he mounted Radio Guards in every neighborhood so it was listened to.

#DoYouKnow When Radio news became commercial, the newspapers fought back. A compromise was reached only when a treaty was brokered with the major newspapers that limited radio news to certain times to ensure radio did not compete with morning and evening newspapers.

The story of the television is even more fascinating. The degree to which it was received was breathtaking. From a mere 9% of homes in 1950, it got to 72% by 1956. And with it came a lot of the advertising methods enduring to this day. You love game and reality shows like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Big Brother Naija? Then it may be good for you to be aware that most are aired for the purpose of having you part with your wallet. Not that many of you will mind owing to their entertainment value but it was shocking for me to discover that many of the winners of these shows are stage-managed and the drama are orchestrated to increase the donation of your attention.

As people became outraged with the duplicitous nature of commercial advertising, the remote control — a grand invention in my opinion — would become available. But as the reader of this book and those who regularly watch television would discover, being able to switch from channel to channel does not ultimately help. More choices do not necessary improve television quality.

#NewWordsAlert Paean | Abstemious | Sisyphean undertaking

As the television made huge sums for the advertising industry, a new kid on the block would emerge — the computer and with it the smartphone.

The story behind the @ sign in emails is newsworthy. You should read this book. Why do video games consume the attention of children and adults with Attention Deficit Disorder as much as anyone else? Why do magazines like People which focuses on celebrities sell so much? What is the link between celebrity worship and religious worship? These all have mind-blowing answers.

And then there are the geniuses of the 21st century advertisement. AdWords was created because Larry Page of Google hated advertisement. He was disgusted at the blatant promotions espoused by its earlier rivals. Facebook decided to forgo adverts in its early days because most of them sucked according to Zuckerberg, rejecting a $1 million deal with Sprite to make its platform green for a day. Wikipedia went the way of donations.

Yet most of them would eventually succumb to the allures of advertisements even if in a more refined way, and definitely in a more invasive manner. Sites like huffpost with more readership than most of what was then called the mainstream media would suck even the most reputable news media to go after gossipy, superficial, and click-driven headlines. Even the respected New York Times has become different in its setup from its origins. To varying degrees, the style of everything news now seems to drift toward tabloid, no thanks to the internet and increased competition due to the nature of the internet.

More than ever, ordinary people can become attention merchants and become advertisement success, but often at a cost as seen by the several stories of bloggers, social media and especially Instagram addicts.

As the book ends, the reader is made aware that advertisement strategies being employed today are nothing new. Several of them are repackaged from the 1930s and often the 1950s. And as users and governments around the world revolt against advertisements, the reader is reminded that this is an industry that has been left for dead at least four separate times over the past hundred years. Again and again, it has seemed as if the party was over, that consumers had fled once and for all, and yet the attention merchants have always found a way to overgrow the bright new machines that seemed to be hacking through the old-growth foliage.

I wish he zoomed in on the role of sports as attention merchants, just like he did for reality shows. With the draw of sports like football, basketball and tennis to attract the eyeballs of billions, and the revenue drawn from advertisement in the process, it’s almost unforgivable that he didn’t devote attention to them. Why would he do that?

Anyway…the real purpose of this book is less to persuade you one way or the other to see advertisement as good or evil, but to get you to see the terms of these attention merchants plainly, and, seeing them plainly, demand bargains that reflect the life you want to live.

You must acknowledge the preciousness of your attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.

Opening your eyes to see what’s happening to you is the supreme goal of this .

It is thus one of the most important books I have read this year. A keeper!

Oh, what is your answer to the scenario at the beginning of this review? 😀

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