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The Attention Merchants: A History of Advertising’s Long Grip on Media

Tim Wu’s timely book explains a lot about today’s click-bait and fake news.

By Shannon Rupp 19 Nov 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com. 

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A new book about the evolution of advertising from 19th century newspapers to Facebook has arrived just in time to remind people that the media are not to blame for the election of the short-fingered vulgarian. It’s way more complicated than that and has been for almost 200 years.

If I were writing the subtitle for Tim Wu’s excellent book, The Attention Merchants, I’d call it the story of how technology changes, but people don’t. But the official subtitle is “The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.” Wu looks at the history of modern media from the perspective of how the propaganda trades — advertising, marketing, and PR — have driven the growth and direction of news and entertainment.

He opens The Attention Merchants by showing us the first news outlet in the U.S. to do what we now call click-bait — in 1833. Most newspapers in that era ran on the subscriber-funded model and they were relatively expensive, at six cents a copy, so only the political and business elite could afford them. New York’s leading newspaper at the time, The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, was a four-page daily with a circulation of just 2,600 in a city of 300,000.

But there was a growing awareness that selling eyeballs to advertisers, rather than information to readers, could be a more lucrative business. So an enterprising young printer, 23-year-old Benjamin Day, estimated that he could profit by selling his newspaper below cost if he could attract a large, general audience that bought soap and patent medicines.

Day didn’t consider himself a journalist; he was a businessman who needed to keep his press humming to make a living. So he launched the New York Sun for a penny, and before you could say “National Enquirer,” he graduated from running true-but-sensational stories about suicides and drunken wife-beaters to fiction masquerading as fact.

That newfangled science thing was all the rage, and he concocted a piece about an imaginary astronomer’s moon discoveries, which included gigantic lunar Yew trees and four-foot-tall winged man-bats. (Wu doesn’t mention this, but it seems to be the first appearance of the Bat Boy character featured in 20th century tabloids.)

The Sun was a huge success — Day had 19,360 subscribers within three years. Suddenly, New York of the 1830s looked like the web of 10 years ago as all sorts of entertainment newspapers sprang up. By 1835, there was a newspaper focused just on sports, the New York Transcript, and another focused on true crime, The Morning Herald. The latter had all the tabloid staples in glorious, graphic detail — prostitute murders, suicides of famous men, and a guillotine death in France!

But Day and his Bat Boy inventions proved unbeatable in the circulation wars and the penny press — the penny dreadfuls — became the inspiration for tabloids and fake news sites to come.

It all sounds very familiar in the age of Buzzfeed, reality TV, and thousands of websites that prosper with tales of the untrue. And Wu’s look at history suggests a roadmap for the future.

The Attention Merchants couldn’t be more timely, as the debate rages over whether Facebook is responsible for putting a reality TV star in the White House because of its willingness to distribute fake news for a price.

Is Facebook getting rich by distributing the latest version of Bat Boy tales? Probably. Can they do it indefinitely? Probably not.

As Wu’s history shows, we have an unwritten contract with the attention sellers: they offer us reasonably good content and we pay attention to their reasonably good advertising. But it’s a fine balance. And if we feel cheated or lied to or exploited, we rebel.

He also makes a good case for how turning attention into a commodity is a business model that is doomed to fail because it causes a race to the bottom in the bid for big audiences — fat profits for cheap content is just too good to resist. But that also kills the goose that lays the golden egg, so the most successful, long-term publishers tend to police themselves.

Wu details how some of the masters of the attention economy do it — basically, it comes down to earning the trust of the audience. Oprah began her talk show career with the usual shock stories, including an infamous interview with the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia. But before long, she tapped into consumerism as entertainment and became the inspirational Shopper-in-Chief for legions of women. It was known as “The Oprah Effect” — an endorsement from her could turn a book into a bestseller overnight. In one case, she recommended an obscure booklight produced by a small business, and they found themselves with $90,000 worth of orders in a single afternoon.

She did it by being trustworthy. As Wu points out, Oprah never deteriorated into shilling though many of her shows looked like infomercials. She didn’t sell those promotions — they were an honest reflection of things she liked or thought her audience might like — and as a result her ad spots went for top dollar.

Wu’s analysis of how the publishing business works is so persuasive that you can’t help but see evidence of his views everywhere. If you look at the media that are losing their audiences, you will see that they have breached the social contract that is rooted in trust.

The latest rebellion against the attention merchants comes courtesy of ad blockers, which have created a crisis in news media in particular. Smart news outlets respect their readers by choosing advertisers carefully. But many outlets use “programmatic” ads, which are connected to key words, or follow readers around the web. This obnoxious, invasive form of advertising interferes with websites loading, particularly on mobiles, and may even come with malware. The public’s unwillingness to tolerate it has forced more and more publishers to erect paywalls as they try to shift the cost of newsgathering from advertising back to subscribers.

But as the 19th century taught us, hard news that appealed only to small audiences — click-death, as I call it — was not particularly profitable. The six-cent newspaper that reaches only 0.8 per cent of the population doesn’t serve democracy well, either. But neither does the free outlet that gives us Bat Boy in exchange for ad dollars.

The most successful merchants of attention strike some balance between these two extremes. Frequently it’s a good deal for the public, as long as publishers remember to serve the audience while serving themselves.

“What the cord-cutters and ad-avoiders of the 2010s were doing was important but not new,” Wu writes. “Rather, it was part of the general and continuous effort to police our deal with the attention merchants, whether the content is the CBS Evening News or hamster videos on YouTube.”

Generally, he says, resistance to invasive advertising is met with more subtle forms of selling, and we can see that happening too. The New York Times recently bought the Wirecutter, a site that reviews the latest tech gadgets and then connects readers to sellers in exchange for a cut of the sale.

That model is actually a welcome return to the hey-day of honest consumer reporting in the mid-20th century, when newspapers built audience loyalty by being trustworthy in every section of the newspaper.

In many ways, the consumer backlash against fake news has also been good for legacy media. It led to a sudden spike in subscriptions in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, the Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal.

But what the fake news kerfuffle giveth, it also taketh away. Following the election, The New York Times sent subscribers a mea culpa for being part of the Trump-can’t-win coverage, coupled with a message to please stop unsubscribing — they promise to do better, but they can’t if no one buys them.

True enough — and a lovely illustration of Wu’s point that attention merchants are constantly negotiating with audiences.

So, while it’s true that ad-supported media will inevitably lead to Bat Boy stories, it’s also true that Bat Boy media has its limits. I looked up the New York Sun to see what happened to the paper that brought us the Great Moon Hoax. It evolved into a respectable newspaper that is probably best known for its 1897 response to a letter from a skeptical young reader: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” And in 1949 it won a Pulitzer Prize for a 24-part investigative series, “Crime on the Waterfront.”

So perhaps the most revealing thing about Wu’s book is the way it illustrates how ad-supported media also give the public a lot of power over what is published. If the attention merchants lose our trust, they have nothing sell and they forget that at their peril.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.  [Tyee]

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