The Attention Merchants:
The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (October 2016)
Author: Tim Wu
Reviewer: Bob Moore, CMC
The Attention Merchants, Author Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, explores the history of buying and selling our thoughts. Wu comments that the most valuable real estate on the planet is not a plot of land. It is the space between our ears. Wu wants us to “acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it cheaply or unwittingly as we so often have.”
To illustrate the potential impact of advertising, Wu traces the rise of mass newspapers in the late 1800s to the advent of radio in the 1940s, and television in the 1950s. This was the beginning of the so-called scientific advertising age. Next, he brings the reader forward to the dawn of social media and smart phones in the early 2000s. Wu characterizes these inventions as “a giant vacuum sucking up human attention.”
Over 35 years ago, Jack Trout and Al Ries rocked the marketing world with their classic book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. These advertising gurus emphasized that by skillfully crafted advertising messages brand owners could dominate the “top rung” of a consumers mind. It was literally a race to the top with only three positions worth the challenge with the assertion that there was a 4:2:1 ratio of market share. The top rung brand in the category would have twice as much as number two who would have twice as much as number three.
Jennifer Senior, reviewer for the NY Times states that in the last 50 pages Wu appraises the excesses of the modern internet and turns savage, sinking enough venom into Twitter and Instagram to kill a baby monkey: “Fame, or the hunger for it, would become something of a pandemic, swallowing up more and more people and leaving them with scars of chronic attention-whoredom.” You can probably relate to that if you have been the “victim” of the current internet advertising trend of retargeting. Have you noticed that upon visiting a particular e-Commerce website you are being “followed” by a persistent flow of ads from that merchant? Yes, that is actually happening and not your imagination.
Mr. Wu concludes his book with a passionate plea for us to regain custody of our attention. He cites psychologist and philosopher William James, who taught “our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to.” He also quotes the ethicist James Williams: “Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.”
Senior concludes her review by stating, “We are what we choose to focus on, the sum of our concentrations. What will we choose? This is an age of glorious individualism. Yet never, it seems, have we belonged less to ourselves.”
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads is available at Amazon for $19.00 (240 pages: hardcover).