Tim Wu on Ads’ Battle for Your Attention

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Tim Wu wears many hats—and changes many diapers. The author, activist and Columbia U. professor, perhaps best known for coining the phrase “net neutrality,” greeted a visitor to his apartment in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood recently with his 3-month-old daughter, Essie, curled compactly in one arm. He looked remarkably placid given her age and the fact he was also nurturing a professional newborn, his recently published book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. A quasi-sequel to his seminal 2010 history of communications monopolies The Master Switch, the book weaves a fascinating narrative of the nearly two-century quest for advertising revenue. It connects a series of evolutionary stages and explains their defining actors and how each informed the next—the penny press, snake-oil hucksters, radio soap operas, wartime propaganda, broadcast TV, cable, the Internet and social networks.

The following is an edited transcript of Wu’s conversation with B&C editor Dade Hayes.

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Q: In what ways would you say Attention Merchants is a companion piece to The Master Switch?

A: When I was researching The Master Switch, some of the seeds for another book started to be planted. I started writing experimentally about soap operas in Master Switch. And then I was like, ‘This doesn’t fit.’ But it was really interesting how they were supported, where they came from. I thought, it doesn’t fit but there’s a lot here. In Master Switch, the basic story is this drive toward monopoly and oligopoly. There are big companies driving things and big men pushing their destiny and ruling their empires. With Attention Merchants, there are hundreds of advertising agencies, hundreds of advertisers, so many TV shows and producers. There are characters, like Oprah Winfrey and People magazine. But People wasn’t a monopoly and neither was Oprah Winfrey, so it’s a very different structure.

Q: So many of the creators and key executives you describe seem genuinely uncomfortable with advertising and don’t even fully grasp how it works.

A: When I worked as an advisor at the Federal Trade Commission, one of the things I did was work on the Google investigation [into anti-trust allegations, which ultimately was closed without charges]. During that process, I felt that regulators don’t really understand ad models. We struggle. The supply-demand curve is all about somebody buying something. This model where you gather up attention and resell it, show me the supply-demand curve for that. I felt like I wanted to shake everybody I could and say, ‘We don’t understand advertising and what it does, its effect on media. It’s just a bunch of talk.’ I’ve been curious about it as an academic and economic matter but also as a personal matter. Doing research, I read a lot of old ads. If you look through an issue of Life magazine, the ads are the most interesting part. The stories are boring, but the ads are rich, they tell you so much about the era.

Q: You offer some revisionist takes on certain familiar figures, like Edward Bernays, who touted himself as “the father of public relations.” Were you surprised by anything else you discovered about others?

A: I tried to figure out who were the real innovators. I’m interested in the invention and innovation process. In traditional tech, it’s more obvious. You have someone who invents something—the light bulb, the telephone. But there are also innovations in the media industry, like someone invented prime time. Someone invented the sitcom, the soap opera. I wanted to highlight those figures. Sometimes they were who they said they were, sometimes not.

Q: Any surprises in the other direction? Did you discover a lot of unsung heroes?

A: Theodore McManus, who invented branding (by devising early 20th century campaigns for Cadillac, Chrysler and General Electric) has had such an influence on our lives. He’s kind of a hard figure to dig out. I would have had more about him. His techniques, the links to Catholicism, his eventual denunciation of Protestant materialism fascinated me. The idea of giving corporations’ names that kind of gloss is so important.

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Q: Why is there so little historical record of McManus and so many other pioneers? It’s almost like the industry wants to have a short memory.

A: We’re also talking about an industry whose relationship with truth is fluid, who, even more than any other creative medium, has no concept of authorship as we know it. You never seen an ad signed by somebody. Even with the great copywriters, you have to work hard to find out who wrote the ad. It’s not like a book or a song. They’re deliberately kept anonymous. The stories about ad campaigns are themselves ads. ‘Oh, we were sitting around …’ Whatever seems to sound good. I was trying to figure out how Amos ‘n’ Andy got started and there are four different stories. I finally decided one was the right one based on some archival research that someone else did.

Q: Every time a new medium is created, it is regarded, to quote your book, ‘as a miracle of science, a sacred and blessed realm that ought to be free from commercial intrusion.’ Why do we tend to have that reflex? Can we not learn from our own gullibility?

A: Part of me asks if we want to learn. There’s something nice about it. Some areas of society retain this attitude. Space travel retains a sort of magic, pure feeling to it. Some parts of basic science. There is something about the science of what is created that verges on the spiritual. And it’s motivating.

Q: But why do consumers compartmentalize? They marvel at the design of something like Facebook and yet also, in participating in social media, knowingly surrender a trove of valuable personal data. The company at that point is not in the realm of the pure and magical.

A: I think the story is one of decay. There’s a predictable cycle. A lot of my writing is about utopic-dystopic cycles. That urge, that sense that we’ve transcended the old constraints, that we’ve found a new realm where the rules are different. I think all of us on some level yearn for those kinds of spaces. A lot of Americans will think back on college as a period when that was true. They explored things and shared with others, had no real responsibilities. Humans are very drawn to utopic environments and they tend to gather around new applications, new inventions. In the early days, you find that spirit really strong—early blogging, early web pages. There’s this three-stage cycle—first comes novelty/magic/potential transcendence; then utility, where it’s less beloved, but it’s useful to your life; and then, finally, decay and disillusionment. The web is one example, early radio is another. The dark side of the business model starts to come out after a while.

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Q: Television advertising lately has been holding its own. Do you think television benefiting from our misgivings about technology?

A: I think so. Television is the winner. If we rewind to the late 90s, it may have been healthier as a business, but it was also showing signs of deep malaise—dominated by a commercial model, a run for its reality television, some creeping dissatisfaction. TV renewed itself with paid models like HBO and Netflix, to the point where I would think it is healthier than the web right now. If I were to put a bet at this moment, it’s the web that’s in trouble. It’s always about comparisons, but the reason ad-supported TV isn’t dying the way people thought it was, is that as annoying as commercials are, the web is worse. I think web ads are even more annoying.

Q: How often are you exposed to TV ads? What kinds of things do you watch in real time?

A: I watch football and baseball. I love sports for a lot of reasons. They’re in some ways the quintessential ad-supported product. You kind of know the deal. Football, the deal seems to change in the third quarter.

Q: Having written so extensively about AT&T and from your academic, regulatory and activist work, were you at all surprised by AT&T’s offer to buy Time Warner?

A: I can’t say I predicted it precisely, but after NBC and Comcast, I expected copycat deals. AT&T is not the same company it was in the 19th and 20th centuries but it has some of the same corporate DNA. And if you know anything about the history of the company, you know there’s never been a history of profit maximization. There’s only been empire maximization. It is a behemoth. I don’t think there’s ever been three years that have passed without them acquiring someone of some significance. This is a company that is, in its nature and culture, expansion-oriented.

Q: As you have heard reaction to the book, what do younger readers like your students think about its core themes? Do you notice real differences between the ways different ages have responded to it?

A: I talk to all different age demographics and I find everyone is least sensitive to what they use the most. Older people, I often notice, will watch television. The ads come on and they just sit there. Younger people treat TV ads like Kryptonite. They’re much less sensitive to the phone. They see it as part of their body, annoyingly so at time. They aren’t as sensitive to how it’s affecting them. But  we are all desensitized to something.

Q: Do you think you need to have personally witnessed different eras in media in order to grasp the scope of your story, though?

A: One thing I always find with older audiences is a powerful desire—I don’t know if “nostalgia” would be the right word—for fewer media outlets. Fewer, more trusted media outlets. That is less about the ad model than the pleasures of less choice. There’s a big paradox in American culture—a simultaneous yearning to belong yet not to be part of some homogenized, coercive conformity. They want both. They want a chosen conformity. Even among younger people I know, they have a yearning for media that is them. Here’s the other contradiction: Young people are more likely to be in a subculture. They like to identify very strongly with that, but then they don’t see the tension between a nation of subcultures and a nation where things they find very disagreeable will be prominent as well. A nation of subcultures that tolerates very non-conformist, very progressive political movements and people devoting their lives to TV shows will also tolerate racist hate groups and everything in between. It’s hard for people to swallow that accepting difference really means accepting difference.

Q: That will certainly become an especially useful skill over the next four years.

A: I feel like we go through cycles in the culture of relative optimism and relative pessimism and it seems to me that we’re in a time of pessimism. I don’t think there’s a company out there that’s untouched by that. Maybe Netflix. People don’t light up at the name Google anymore. With Facebook, for example, they ask you questions now. I used to think, ‘Oh, Facebook wants to know about me?!’ I’d tell them my favorite bands, I’d tell them everything. Now, when they ask, I just know it can be used against me.