The more limited a resource is, the greater its worth. We’re quick to apply this to externalities – air, food, water, energy, and money, for example. But we all own a hidden resource, exploited for immense profit on a daily basis. Each week of his or her life, every human being has 168 hours of attention, mental acuity that we can devote to anything we wish. Sure, much of it goes to sleep and the basics of getting around. Those spare moments when we are able to choose how we spend our attention are sought after with mathematical ruthlessness by those who hope to resell our experience. We are the ultimate product.
It has not always been this way. Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads might be described as brief and action-packed history of advertising. But Wu is well aware of the cultural, moral and epistemological implications of his investigation. The mastery to be found in The Attention Merchants is Wu’s ability to let the story he is telling braid into the bigger picture about what’s going into our heads. Suffice it to say that after reading this book, you will be much more precise when you decide whether to want to spend – or pay – your attention to anything.
Wu quickly takes us back to the beginnings of advertising as we know it, with the New York newspaper industry in the early 19th century, when Benjamin Day decided he could make money from a paper that lost money in per-issue sales by charging merchants to advertise. It took almost a year, but after that our world was profoundly changed. The audience became the product, and as Wu says, nothing has been the same since,
Wu is a brilliant storyteller, and he keeps the pages turning relentlessly as he takes us through two hundred-ish years of advertising history. What has happened is that we were invaded. Our private lives, once devoted to family and home, slowly but surely featured less family and more merchandising. The home was once considered a private space, and the idea of hearing advertising on the radio was as foreign and weird as it would (will?) be for us to see billboards in Church, or a sermon “Brought to you by …” But between the television, the computer, the radio and our smart phones, every moment of our waking lives is up for grabs.
Expect to meet a lot of memorable characters here. From Claude Hopkins, the first great copywriter, to the Rattlesnake King (the origin of the term snake oil) to the “Celebrity Industrial Complex,” Wu takes us on a wild ride that is funny, fun to read and yet ultimately thought-provoking. Wu lets his stories reveal his themes, and the page-turning result reveals this book to be perhaps the inception point of a wave of literature devoted to the nutrition of our minds. If we are physically what we eat, then we are mentally what we pay attention to. Our attention defines who we are – and Wu expertly, engagingly manages to ask us to pay attention to how we spend our attention. It turns out the two are not synonymous.
Wu and I had a great time talking about the book. We explored a lot of ideas that were on the periphery of the book, and Wu went into some great details you’ll not find in the book. I’d suggest you start with the lighting round interview below, for a fly-over perspective.
Or just dive in to the deep dive for nearly an hour down the rabbit hole.