The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

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There are few people smarter than media critic Tim Wu. In his new book, The Attention Merchants, Wu traces the history of advertising and the grab for attention, both political and commercial. Since the book takes us to the present day with social media, the scope is grand and impressive. I do have a minor argument with the “creating need” concept of Wu’s critique of advertising. I believe that human needs are not created but are innate; advertising serves to stimulate existing needs toward their product.

Wu states his life mission as “fighting bullies,” and with the media conglomerated into just a few corporate holdings, it serves as a big bully to take on. Take it on, he does. Among the brilliant insights of this book is, “[T]he race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative….” The current spate of reality television certainly proves that this is true. He also relates the tale of Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who stated, “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.” He then went on to use propaganda techniques developed in World War I for commercial clients. Also chilling is the way in which Hitler monopolized radio to force attention to his political party. “Finally, Hitler understood the demagogue’s most essential principle: to teach or persuade is far more difficult than to stir emotion. And far less welcome: what the audience most wants is an excuse to experience fully the powerful feelings already lurking within them but which their better selves might lead them to suppress.”

In the final pages, Wu takes on Facebook and the current unhappiness experienced by its users. It turns out that witnessing the filtered life of others creates unhappiness for the Facebook user. Wu summarizes, “Without express consent, most of us have passively opened ourselves up to the commercial exploitation of our attention just about anywhere and anytime. If there is to be some scheme of zoning to stem this sprawl, it will need to be mostly an act of will on the part of the individual.” This reader would encourage you to take that act of will and turn off media and open the pages of this remarkable book. Wu powerfully persuades us that not only are we being sold by advertisers, our attention is being sold to advertisers so that they in turn can more powerfully tune into our wants and sell us more and better. If there is one book everyone should read this year, this is it!

Reviewed By:

Author Tim Wu
Star Count /5
Format Hard
Page Count 416 pages
Publisher Knopf
Publish Date 2016-Oct-18
ISBN 9780385352017 Buy this Book
Issue January 2017
Category Business & Investing


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