Most industry folks know the name Tim Wu. He’s the Columbia professor that coined the phrase ‘net neutrality’ and who has been an advisor to the FCC on telecom issues. He’s written a new book, The Attention Merchants, about the history of advertising that culminates with the advertising we see today on the Internet.
Wu specifically looks at what he calls the attention industry, being that part of advertising that works hard to get people’s attention – as opposed to the part of the industry that produces advertising copy and materials. Wu pegs the start of the attention industry with the New York Sun, a scandal sheet started in 1833 that built up circulation by selling papers at a low price that included sensational (and untrue) content. The Sun was the first generation of publications like today’s National Enquirer and like a lot of websites today that peddle fake news. But that model worked and Herbert Simon of the Sun created an industry and made a lot of money selling advertisements.
Wu has painted a picture about advertising in terms of its place in the larger society. He observes that advertising has always come in cycles. At times advertisers grow to become too pervasive and annoying, and society then reacts by ignoring the abuses or by forcing the end to the largest abuses of the industry.
Wu traces the history of the attention industry through the years. He looks at the development of billboards and at state-sponsored propaganda machines like the British during WW1 and the Germans in WW2. He ends up by looking at Google, Facebook, Instagram and others as today’s latest manifestation of industries built from the concept of gaining people’s attention.
The attention industry has changed along with technology, and so Wu’s story is as much about technology as advertising. From the early days of sensational newspapers the attention industry morphed over the years to adapt to the new technologies of radio, television and now the Internet.
Probably the heyday of advertising was during the 1950s in the US when as many as two-thirds of the nation tuned in to watch the same shows like I Love Lucy or the Ed Sullivan Show. Advertisers for those shows caught the attention of the whole nation at the same time. But that uniformity of a huge market fragmented over time with the advent of cable TV and multiple channels for people to watch.
Today we are in the process of carrying advertising to the ultimate degree where ads are being aimed at specific people. The attention industry is spending a lot of money today on big data and on building profiles for each of us that are then sold to specific advertisers.
But we are already seeing the pushback from this effort. At the end of 2016 it was reported that over 70 million Americans were using ad blockers. These ad blockers don’t stop all ads and the advertising industry is working hard to do an end run around ad blockers. But it’s clear that like at times in the past, the advertisers have gone too far for many people. In the early days of the tabloids there was a lot of advertising for fake health products and other dangerous items and the government stepped in and stopped the worst of the practices. When TV ads became too pervasive and repetitive people invested in TiVo and DVRs in order to be able to skip the ads.
And the same is happening with online advertising. I am probably a good example and I rarely notice online advertising any more. I use an ad blocker to block a lot of it. I refuse to use web sites that are too annoying with pop-ups or other ads. And over time I’ve trained my eyes to just not notice online ads on web pages and on social media streams. And so advertisers are wasting their money on me, as they are on many people who have grown immune to the new forms of online ads.
But advertisers wouldn’t be going through the efforts if it didn’t work. Obviously online advertising is bringing tangible results or companies wouldn’t be moving the majority of their ad revenues from other media to the web. Wu’s book is a fascinating read that puts today’s advertising into perspective – it’s mostly the attention industry doing the same things they’ve always done, wrapped into a new medium. The technology may be new, but this is still the same attention industry that was trying to gain eyeballs in the 1800s. If nothing else, the book reminds us that the goal of the industry is to get your attention – and that you have a choice to participate or not.