A book that has changed the way I understand contemporary life is The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu. We all know that advertising is designed to motivate us to buy things, and over the years has become more and more clever at doing that, but I had never understood how it emerged and evolved over time.
He starts in the 19th century when newspapers discovered they could sell more copies by publishing scandalous and outrageous stories. Soon, publishing entrepreneurs also figured out that, instead of earning income by customers just paying for each printed copy, they could make more on selling space to advertisers to promote their sometimes dubious products.
Aided by innovations in printing technology, the billboard soon appeared:
Posters had been around since 1796. But no one had ever seen the likes of those that began to appear in Paris in the late 1860s, some of them seven-feet high, with beautiful, half-dressed women gamboling over fields of vibrant color…’Luminous, brilliant, even blinding,’ one journalist wrote…For despite being static, the Parisian posters evoked a sense of frantic energy…elements that made them nearly impossible to ignore.”[i]
Wu takes through us through the boom in propaganda during World War 1, as nations used methods borrowed from advertising and adapted it on a mass scale; the Nazi Party capitalized on this to bewitch an entire nation.
In the late 1920s, the technology of radio emerged. A toothpaste manufacturer, Pepsodent, was looking for a program that could attract a loyal following and boost their flagging product sales. They created “Amos n’ Andy,” a radio sitcom that drew on all the racist stereotypes of African Americans to tell a light-hearted tale of two men making sense of everyday life in Harlem. They hit gold:
The audiences, astounding at the time, are still impressive by today’s standards…by 1931, Amos n Andy is believed to have attracted 40 million listeners each and every evening – with some episodes reaching 50 million – this out of a population that was then 122 million….the equivalent of having today’s Super Bowl audiences each and every evening – and with just one advertiser…Hotels, restaurants and movie theaters would broadcast the show for their patrons. Fearing displacement, movie theaters advertised the installation of radios to broadcast “Amos n’ Andy” at 7 PM before the newsreels and features.[ii] Many people gathered around a radio in their living room — now advertising was in the center of family life.
Then came television. At first, many people dimmed the lights in their living room and refrained from talking to simulate being in a theater. And with every program, advertising was becoming more and more skillful with catchy songs and memorable slogans. I Love Lucy premiered in 1952 and, by 1953, “attracted an astonishing 71.3 percent of audiences, and as an average for an entire season, this figure remains unsurpassed.”[iii] The company that sponsored the show and benefitted from all this attention: Phillip Morris Tobacco, which contributed to our collective imagination in many ways, including the creation of the “Marlboro Man.”
The story continues decade after decade, with advertisers adapting quickly to social changes and technological innovations. Wu takes us through the arrival of personal computers, email, AOL (“You’ve got mail!”), Oprah, reality shows, Apple, the Web, Google, click-bait, Facebook, and all social media. As we know, the “attention merchants” are relentlessly coming up with new methods to get our attention, track us, and create complex algorithms to target us so they can sell us products and try to shape our political and social sentiments.
Your attention is worth a lot to advertisers. What’s it worth to you?
The great psychologist and religious experience scholar William James said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” [iv]
I’m not a purist or a saint. I have fond memories of watching the television version of “Amos n’ Andy” as a kid, oblivious to the racial stereotyping it conveyed. My family loved “I Love Lucy,” and when I tried smoking cigarettes as a teenager, I bought Marlboros more than once, subconsciously hoping it would make me ride a bit taller in my saddle. I own four different Apple devices that I use every day, loving both the engineering quality and the brand identity of being “a creative.” I rely on Gmail and Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family, adding filters as I can figure them out, but knowing what they offer is free because of the economic value of analyzing and predicting what interests me.
All the more reason to commit ourselves to using attention to experience life as it really is, free from the reach of the “Attention Merchants.”
We can remember that each breath we take is not a commodity, but a divine gift.
We can look carefully at trees and pause to wonder how they’re always growing and responding to their environment without making a sound.
We can play with children as people have done long before the first ad or device was sold.
We can notice that our pets aren’t devoted to us because there’s profit to be made, but because we share genuine bonds of life.
We can sing, paint, write, sculpt, garden, cook, and build things as a way to experience and appreciate the gift of creativity we possess free of charge.
We can engage in spiritual, social and physical practices that allow our distractable mind to rest, and the deeper voice within to speak to us through sensations, intuitions, and feelings, instead of manipulated responses.
Our attention is our life. Let’s treat it with intelligence and care.
[i] The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Tim Wu, 2016, page 18-19
[ii] Wu, pages 90-91
[iii] Wu, page 123
[iv] Wu, dedication page
Image: Tree of Faith, La Casa de Maria