cover image The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

Tim Wu. Knopf, $27.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-385-35201-7

Business is always trying to get our attention—and perhaps our souls—according to this lively if sometimes overwrought history of advertiser-sponsored media. Columbia law professor and net-neutrality advocate Wu (The Master Switch) takes readers from the 19th-century dawn of New York’s penny press, when media moguls first realized that the attention of readers was their “product” and advertisers their customers, through the propaganda of wartime Britain and Nazi Germany, the advent of television’s mesmeric power, and ultimately the current onslaught of garish pop-ups and click-bait junk-journalism fighting to hijack our eyeballs on the Internet. Wu’s critique of the Kardashianized spiritual malaise of our society of the spectacle—“We are at risk of being not merely informed but manipulated and even deceived by ads... of living lives that are less fully our own than we imagine,” he groans—feels old hat; the real problem seems to be simply how to prune back ads that have grown too invasive and annoying. Fortunately, his history is usually vigorous and amusing, filled with details of colorful hucksterism and cunning attention-grabbing ploys along with revealing insights into the behavioral quirks they instill in us. The result is an engrossing study of what we hate about commercial media. (Oct.)