This is an interesting look at it from the other side, I just got Tim Wu's book "The Attention Merchants" and it's interesting and thought provoking.
Here is an interview from The Atlantic:
Tim Wu's 'The Attention Merchants' Asks, Does Advertising Ruin Everything?
perhaps the original U.S. industrial activity. Economic growth relied on
the reliable conversion of plants and animals into salable products,
like cotton and beef. But the 21st century’s most successful
industrialists, like Facebook and Google, harvest another commodity as
abundant as wheat or crude oil. In the new industry, the fields are
media and entertainment, the harvesters are advertisers, and the crop is
In his new book, The Attention Merchants,
the Columbia University professor and writer Tim Wu traces the history
of the advertising business from its origins in the 19th century to the
modern phenomenon of ad-blocking software on websites. Wu is widely
known for his previous book The Master Switch, a history of
media companies, and his coining of the term “net neutrality.” We spoke
earlier this week about advertising as the modern iteration of religious
evangelism and the effect of advertising on journalism and television.
This transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.
Derek Thompson: An important part of attention is focus, so let’s zoom all the way in. What is this book’s thesis?
Tim Wu: The
descriptive thesis is that there is a strange business model called
advertising-supported media that was once restricted to a small area of
our life, like newspapers, but now it is taking over every area of our
life. I wanted to understand the history of advertising, because it
didn’t simply always exist this way. You typically would just pay for
stuff, like newspapers or movies. The idea of selling a captive audience
had to be invented.
And the normative question is: What
are the costs of everything being free? Are we paying in other ways?
There is a covenant that, in exchange for free stuff, we expose
ourselves to advertising. But is that covenant broken?
idea that advertising is a strange idea is, frankly, a strange idea. I
unlock my phone, and I’m swimming in ads. I walk outside: ads. I turn on
the television: more ads. The first popular radio news programs were in
the early 20th century, so literally nobody alive today can recall a
period where they were not being constantly bombarded by commercial
Wu: I think that most people think
there has always been advertising, that it is a fact of nature. But
modern advertising had to be invented. Somebody had to develop the
techniques of getting people’s attention and then driving them to a
product they wouldn’t otherwise want.
history of advertising is not well known. Many of the early ad men
specialized in selling medicine. Many were former preachers or related
to preachers. In the 19th century, advertising drew from traditions of
religious propaganda, and the idea that our advertising culture draws
from religious practice is fascinating to me.
Thompson: You trace the origins of advertising to the story of an 1830s newspaper man named Benjamin Day. What was his genius?
Newspapers were once a sleepy business. They often sold for a
relatively high price. Then in the 1830s, this fellow Benjamin Day, his
paper was the New York Sun, and he was perhaps the first true
attention merchant. Day had a brilliant idea to dramatically reduce the
price, amass a large readership, and convert his customers into a
product, which he could sell to an advertiser. This insight spread
across media to become the dominant form of selling the news.
story shows both the promise and the ethical challenges inherent to the
advertising business model. Because once your goal is to gather the
largest audience possible, that puts you in a race toward the more
lurid, spectacular, and attention-getting media. Day’s paper included
lots of violence crime and death, but it also very quickly got into
Thompson: I can imagine some
readers drawing a straight line from Day’s sensational 1830s papers to
online clickbait today, concluding that advertising encourages a race to
the bottom to maximize attention on a per-unit basis. But it’s also the
case that advertising democratizes news and information, making freely
available to the many that which used to be open only to the rich. And
that sort of business model is good because it pays for more reporters
think it’s all there in the story of Benjamin Day. The potential and
the risk of advertising. To Day's credit, he brought the news to
everybody. Newspapers were a very elite product before the opening of
the penny press. There is a democratizing element to advertising that
makes these products cheap and available to the masses. That is is good.
But it should be done very, very carefully. A business model that
relies above all else on attention is always prone to the sensational.
Thompson: What is the most controversial idea in the book?
A subtle thesis of the book is that business overtook religion in the
20th century. For most of human existence, who told you what to think?
Preachers did. Religion did. But I think that, through advertising,
business has displaced religion as the primary instructor of human
I tell the story of Claude Hopkins, who is
famed as one of the inventors of modern advertising. He was a funny guy
with a lisp, and he was socially awkward. He was a baptist preacher as a
teenager, who quit and took his talent to copywriting and virtually
invented the idea of the copy writer as a genius in the early 20th
century. He invented the Don Draper figure. His strategy was very
closely related to the protestant-preacher style of deliverance. He
imported ideas of religious conversion directly into the advertising
world. His autobiography, My Life in Advertising, is full of falsehoods. You can't decide if he was one of the most evil people of the 20th century or a lovable genius.
now, we’re at an interesting inflection point in ad-supported media. On
the one hand, you have Facebook and Google, two enormous ad-based
companies that are collectively worth about $900 billion. On the other
hand, you have structural decline in the broadcast-television business
as more young people watch subscription television, like Netflix and HBO
Now, where there are no commercials. So audiences, and especially young
people, are simultaneously running away from advertising on television
while running toward it on their phones. Is this a golden age for
advertising? Or the beginning of an Ice Age? Or an unstable and unsure
Wu: We are in a moment of
revolt against major forms of advertising. You can see it in the decline
in NFL ratings, the abandonment of traditional television. But some
things are growing that are ad-based. Revolutions are confusing in real
time. They’re often only clear in retrospect.
say that heavy advertising load hasn’t arrived at some of the social
media yet. Snapchat and Twitter are still in their relatively early
days, and the full load hasn’t arrived, unlike the barrage of ads you
see in the fourth quarter of a football game. There is always this delay
factor. Young people will always be running to these apps before they
add advertising. YouTube got people hooked before they turned up the ad
load. But you look at YouTube now, and I think the terms have gone
beyond TV, where it feels like a third of the time spent on YouTube is
watching ads. That is why there is this move among people who cannot
stand advertising and are going to Netflix and Amazon Video.
is a testable hypothesis. If investors are reading this interview, they
might say, “Tim Wu is seeing a cultural shift against ads that spells
the long-term demise of ad-sponsored businesses.” Then they would place a
huge bet on an ad-free media portfolio, including Netflix and Amazon
and against Facebook and BuzzFeed. But how would websites survive that
future? How would The Atlantic survive?
I have a personal theory about traditional media, like newspaper and
magazine sites, which is that they are crazy to go it alone and try to
build their own little army. They should be more focused on getting
readers to subscribe to a one-pass for everything that’s worth reading
before Facebook essentially does this for them.
Thompson: For example, you’re talking about a hypothetical product where readers could subscribe to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the New York Times all at once with a discounted price and have special access to those print products and sites.
Wu: Right. Something like that.
The whole idea that news should cost money has been a casualty of the
Internet and the new abundance of free—or, ad-supported—sites. If The Atlantic puts up a wall, maybe readers will just go somewhere else.
and that’s why a part of my message is to consumers. We have to get
over our addiction to free stuff. Suck it up and pay. A lot of people
say, “I hate ads, I’m sick of ads, I’m sick of clickbait, I’m sick of
this race to the bottom.” If you say that, you have to put your money
where your mouth is. We have to get over our addiction to free if we’re
going to save the web. That’s us, the users. We can’t expect everything
to be free and to be good.
Thompson: Unlike cable television, which is very expensive but also very good.
The history of the last 10 years of the Web is a bit like the first 10
years of television. There were all these great hopes for what TV would
be. But then it became an ad battle, and the only programs that
succeeded were game shows and cowboys. Television only got better with
the rise of paywalls [like premium cable].
if game shows and cowboys succeeded because people like game shows and
cowboys? Perhaps the ultimate culprit here is that large audiences might
have worse taste than you or I would prefer.
I realize that not everybody has the same taste as me. But if you go
through American media history, you see that there are times when the
programs clearly get better and where the offerings are more diverse.
There have always been shows that no critics liked. But television has
been terrific over the the last 10 years, and I think that the economic
structure of premium cable and subscription television has been an
Thompson: One irony of
the superabundance of advertising on the Internet and on our phones is
that, per the principle of inflation, there is so much competition that
each individual advertisement is worth less. I wonder whether
advertising itself is in a race to the bottom on the Web. It’s
impossible to predict the future of anything, but what’s a smart way to
think about the future of advertising and media?
attention-merchant business model is in constant need of growth, and
the way it has grown historically is either to find new times and space
where we’re not occupied or to more subtly exploit the time that is
already there. That suggests that all the periods you now regard as
refuges or escapes from your crazy life will inevitably become targeted,
because that’s where the growth activities are. For example, there has
been a move to bring more ads to national parks, inside public schools,
and into other sanctuaries that were previously walled off. As people
are harder to reach, the efforts to advertise to them became more
disguised, more intrusive, and more manipulative.
were in charge of the universe, I would say we need a new covenant—a new
deal between advertisers and consumers, to make some times and places
off limits. Where we want to be is where many print magazines are right
now. The ads are beautiful and often very interesting, but looking at
them doesn't ruin the magazine. That would be peace in our time.