Book Review: "The Attention Merchants" by Tim Wu

Originally, this post was supposed to come out a week ago, as a Linux comparison test between BunsenLabs Linux and CrunchBang++ ("#!++"), two quasi-official successors to the now-defunct CrunchBang ("#!") Linux distribution. Unfortunately, neither of them booted in a live USB. For that reason, this post is now a book review of The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu. It is a relatively long and detailed book about the history of advertising and other ways that people have tried to get into our heads and sell us on either commercial goods or ideas. It has a fairly extensive discussion of the development of advertising in newspapers, city posters, and radios, as well as further developments through TV and the Internet. Additionally, it goes through the cycles of development and backlash with respect to each medium of communication, noting how the backlashes are fairly similar to one another in many respects throughout history.

The book is quite interesting, and despite its longer length, it generally reads easily enough that this length is less noticeable. There are many examples given through each period of history and with respect to each medium of communication showing how advertising techniques further developed, and each of them is quite compelling on its own. I even learned a few interesting bits of trivia that I take for granted on a daily basis: "propaganda" was originally a straightforward (not derogatory) term for "propagation of [religious] faith", "broadcast" was originally an agricultural term (for spreading seeds through a field) that later got co-opted in advertising, and drive-in movies originated from the British government displaying war propaganda films from vans on large exterior walls in WWI. The only issue that I have is that the latter parts of the book become a little tiresome to read; part of that is because I have read from other places about the issues surrounding Internet tracking and advertising, while part of it is because the author could have better connected developments in Internet advertising to prior developments in newspapers/radio, so the repetition of key points without those deeper connections being made explicit (or only being made partway) felt a bit wearisome. Overall, though, I recommend this book for anyone who'd like to learn more about the history of advertising, how people have tried to fight back, and how the cycle continues. Follow the jump to see more details, as well as further scattered thoughts and questions I have about this book.

The book opens with an introduction about how poor school districts in the US have turned to corporate advertising in schools to make up for funding shortfalls. That example seems clearly chosen to rile readers immediately, and in my case, it certainly worked (and got me thinking some more). Why is it OK for students, who do not have fully developed capacities for discrimination and logical thinking, to be inundated with corporate advertising in a place where they are supposed to be free to learn the good and bad about corporate behavior (given that they're already saturated with this outside of school)? Corporations may say that students will still have the opportunity to learn and form their own opinions, but this will be heavily influenced by decisions made by school administrators and teachers, who will likely be contractually bound to not say negative things about the advertisers, so it is up to the adults running the school to nip it in the bud and make the logical decision to disallow this before students grow up with the understanding that this is OK in a place of learning.

One thing the book makes clear is that fake news is nothing new: sensationalist newspapers of the 19th century were already trafficking in it, but the difference now (as the book makes somewhat clearer closer to its end) is the ability of fake news to reach anyone who wants it, and the fragmentation of media allowing anyone to choose the news they want, leading to a corrosion of trust in actual facts that may prevent backlashes (similar to those of the past) against the attention merchants. That said, as the book is primarily about advertising rather than fake news, it ends by noting that another revolt against advertisers has been happening in the last few years, with the proliferation of ad-blocking software as well as the rise of high-quality ad-free subscription programming online (Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, as well as alternatives to cable TV). This illustrates the continuing cycle of these developments and backlashes, with saturation or backlash being omnipresent dangers for advertising companies, yet there is no internal negative feedback limiting the growth of advertising businesses, in the way that there are such mechanisms for limiting the growth of actual organisms (referencing how corporations are frequently compared to living organisms out of context). As another example, when hucksters captured people's attention to sell their scams, the backlash was in large part fueled by investigative expositions of these scams, yet publication of these investigative expositions itself required capturing people's attention in a different direction (which was part of yet another cycle).

It's interesting to note that many advertising innovations arose in governments pushing for war and enlistment in WWI; plus, even in and right after WWI (when the term "stereotype" was coined, with respect to propaganda), it was known how people's thoughts, ideas, and decisions are significantly influenced by what they see and hear, so the competition is for a person's attention. Around the same time, advertising concepts like demand engineering (showing that a product can solve some problem, and even convincing people that some previous non-problem is a problem), branding, and targeted advertising were formalized, and even before this, it was found that much attention capture by advertisers & corporations occurs when a person's attention isn't focused on matters of importance (e.g. on the walk to work, rather than at work itself), though even this could be changing now. In fact, advertising campaigns would often co-opt scientific and social justice ideas to push products, even breaking previous conservative taboos (like women smoking outside of the home) just for more customers, yet it's interesting that despite this scientific and social justice aspect, many advertisers in the 1920s actually used to be religious preachers, using their skills at preaching to persuade people to buy products (presumably despite their lesser formal knowledge, and possible lesser opinion, of science or social justice issues). This also makes the similarities of branding to religious preaching in specific denominations somewhat less coincidental or surprising.

In the 1930s, many critics of advertising and attention-grabbing pointed to its market-distorting effects, and while it would seem like this would unfairly target advertisers who are but a small part of the market, truth to this has been more recently found when examining markets with incomplete information and their distortions from classical microeconomic theoretic predictions; that said, advertisers pushed back by calling their critics anti-capitalists, or worse, communist/Soviet sympathizers. It's probably a good thing that many years after the end of the Cold War, advertisers trying to fight against those who dislike them are not quite so ham-fisted anymore.

An extended discussion is made of the extremely effective propaganda of Nazi Germany; leaving aside the politics (for the most part), the tactics (gaslighting and self-deception) of the Trump campaign and administration have been strikingly similar, yet the book makes clear how Nazi Germany borrowed from previous American and British WWI propaganda campaigns as well as from the oratory of William Jennings Brian (the latter of which has also been compared to Trump). Related to this, it was also interesting for me to learn that the First Amendment has really only become powerful since the 1950s (post-WWII, in an effort to learn from the lessons of Nazi Germany).

Though the book seems to hype revolutions in TV advertising, it seems to me like while TV introduced several new innovations into advertising (like multiple sponsors filling multiple commercial breaks), its advertising was not revolutionary in the same way that radio revolutionized advertising by capturing attention in the evening prime time and delivering commercial messages directly into people's homes (in a way that was previously considered practically sacrilegious). That said, I relearned (as I think I had seen this somewhere before, but had forgotten) that the image of Santa Claus as a fat man in a red-and-white suit was primarily propounded in American culture by Coca-Cola in the 1950s/1960s.

As another example of the cycle of development and backlash in the world of attention merchants, although the 1960s counterculture railed against elite institutions and corporations, its ethos was co-opted by the advertising of those same corporations who realized that they could use it to sell products and satisfy the ultimate desires of even those hippies who claimed otherwise, and many of those same counterculture people (like the Beatles) needed establishment corporations (like CBS and other big media companies) and other institutions to propagate their own hippie messages, so if the hippie revolution wasn't realistically going to end mass consumerism and things like that anyway, then this ironic symbiosis seems to have been a natural occurrence anyway. Given that, it'll be interesting to see if, when, and how the next revolt against attention merchants comes, given the total fragmentation of media, the extraordinarily low barriers of entry for producing and consuming fake news, and the lack of hold that facts seem to have on the culture now, in conjunction with the continued reluctance of advertisers to associate with such extreme (though not necessarily fringe, anymore) views. Even this started with the proliferation of choices in TV programming in conjunction with new, highly targeted demographic analysis in the 1980s that did not lead to a proliferation of wholesome, educational, unifying programming, but actually led ironically (compared to progressives' hopes and visions) to fragmentation and polarization, as well as perennial distraction in the form of channel-surfing.

The book makes clear that the bigger revolution came with email, arcade games, video games, and the Internet (originally AOL for most people) which pulled entertainment and attention-based marketing further into the home by getting people actively engaged in doing something and eagerly anticipating unpredictable rewards that would be hard to come by. That said, the book makes clear in the beginning on several occasions that there is still a lot that people don't understand about how the brain responds to attempts to capture its attention, yet this sounds suspiciously like a half-hearted, somewhat superficial attempt at such understanding.

One of the other issues in this book is its discussion of the phenomenon of celebrity. There's some discussion about how People magazine ushered in a renewed obsession with celebrity lives, compounded with celebrities' increasing willingness to talk about themselves and increased willingness to use their own fame to draw customers in and sell products, but it isn't clear why this is so different from commercial celebrity endorsements of the 1920s, nor why the people who were "famous for being famous" were so different from those [socialites] of past decades; moreover, to say that People gentrified celebrity gossip may be ignoring the idea that the gentry read gossip in decades past, but hid this for the sake of appearance/respectability.
This discussion of celebrity has further problems in its discussion of Oprah Winfrey in considering her creation of an "alternative" to organized religion, while barely mentioning or not fully considering the implications of televangelists being a logical extension of megachurch preachers, her own Christian faith shaping her worldview and approach to her show, and the long intertwining of faith and commercialism/consumerism long before the 20th century (whether that is through prosperity gospel, or through Catholic indulgences in the mid-second millennium). That said, the book does reasonably discuss the proliferation of reality TV in the 1990s and 2000s, which demonstrated the ability to cheaply manufacture attention for its own sake; it fed ordinary people in these shows attention from other viewers and gave them the possibility of gaining more attention and money from other avenues, thereby democratizing celebrity (which was generally, with the exception of certain socialites, previously restricted to people who had actual talents/achievements — even the ordinary people appearing on 1950s daytime TV game shows had to be qualified, except for those that were found to be scripted/rigged).

As with the discussion of certain other facets of the Internet, the discussion of Google's advertising "revolution" seems a bit hyped, in the sense that while it was the first company to effectively demonstrate how to advertise on and monetize the Internet, it seems like a logical discovery for a new medium, in the same way as the discovery of effective TV advertising (or radio advertising before it). Perhaps this is the irony of this book: it is almost too rich and detailed in example, explanation, and narrative that it becomes a little too easy to divert attention to other things and become skeptical of further narration & example
there's a decent discussion of the rise of clickbait, the spread of information (or misinformation) virally, and its relations to the previous advertiser-funded penny gossip newspapers of yore. It does do a good job though of showing how Facebook's genius was that instead of creating forums of far-flung people interested in specific things and barraging them with random ads, it augmented existing real-life social networks, incentivized people to curate and cultivate their own profiles and hand over lots of information to Facebook, and then be targeted with highly specific ads, thus creating an incredible attention-harvesting loop.

Finally, the book does discuss how things like the rise of smartphones and Instagram do mirror previous developments in attention grabbing and self-indulgence (as I would have thought from an XKCD comic) but democratizes these developments to a degree previously unimaginable, but it would have been nice to see a further exploration into these historical similarities. (With respect to the linked comic, I'd also point out that the discussion of the radio being supposedly revolutionary in being able to capture people's attention without letting them talk to one another may not have been such a new phenomenon as suggested in the book.)

There is one other tangential matter that came up in the book for which I realized I have many questions, yet I don't think it merits its own prominently separate post; many of my questions have probably been asked by many people before me, but in the interest of getting them off my own chest, I'll write those here. This is about what constitutes "high" versus "low" culture (referenced in the book with respect to playing live classical orchestral music on the radio in the 1940s, versus vaudeville or burlesque theater).
Is it just a matter of what some powerful, elite arbiters say (e.g. comparing the classical music of rich white Europeans to the hip-hop of poor urban black people), or is it a matter of how complex and multi-layered something is, in terms of getting people to think more deeply? If it is the latter, how much of it is real versus imagined (like how wine supposedly has great depth, yet most wine critics can't do better than random chance in judging the quality and price of wines)?
Does the notion of "real" versus "imagined" just have to do with how easy it is for some multi-layered texture to be perceptible, and how easy it is for various people to perceive that? If that's the case, given what I've observed about the differences among great versus acceptable versus bad teaching (the first being a skill, the second being requisite among anyone who claims to understand a field, the third being either laziness or lack of understanding), could complexity and consequent labeling of "high" versus "low" culture in fact be some mixture of "real" (whether the author actually intended for a deeper message to come out) versus "perceived" (whether people just happen to have reached a consensus that something has depth, for its own sake, like people locked in a room for a year analyzing 500 pictures of Joe Biden eating a sandwich, as per the XKCD comic)?