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20170311 – The Attention Merchants



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The main idea of this book is to provide a detailed look at business model of communication and information services including news, entertainment, and Internet services as a method to capture customer attention and then sell it to advertisers.


Introduction: Here’s the Deal

The introduction starts with the story of poor school in California that obtained funding by allowing companies advertise to students. It follows by definition of what are the attention merchants.


Part I: Masters of Blazing Modernity

This part is about the beginning of this business in early XIX century with mass paper based news and later broadcasting corporations.

Chapter 1: The First Attention Merchants

The first serious business based on reselling captured attention was Benjamin Day’s New York Sun first published in 1833. It changed business model to rely not on subscription and retail sales, but on advertisements. Author also traces even earlier form of advertisement – Posters, which were around since 1796. Author also discusses mechanism of human attention that makes this business model viable.

Chapter 2: The Alchemist

This is about the story of patent medicine that was mainly based on advertisement to sell snake oil with no need to prove that it actually works as advertised.

Chapter 3: For King and Count

This is about patriotic advertisement that allowed countries with relative tradition of freedom and voluntary military to successfully mobilize population for large-scale war.

Chapter 4: Demand Engineering, Scientific Advertising, and What Women Want

The next step in progress of attention capturing and selling was scientific advertisement developed in 1920s. The key feature was demand manufacturing, which is development via advertisement consumer needs that did not exist before. It was especially successful with women.

Chapter 5: A Long Run

This is a story of tobacco advertisement which promoted product increasingly understood to be harmful. It also summarizes achievement of advertisement industry that by late 50s defined informational environment of American live.

Chapter 6: Not with a Bang but with a Whimper

The last chapter of this part is about the fall of advertisement industry from grace caused by disconnecting advertisement with reality and eventual government interference, which limited methods and tools of advertisement. All these, plus global economic crash brought advertisement industry to its knees by 1930.

Part II: The Conquest of Time and Space

This part is about formation of the new mass broadcasting media such as radio and TV that brought not just a nice recovery, but huge growth in advertisement.

Chapter 7: The Invention of Prime Time

This is about different methods tried by radio advertisement, with special attention to black radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy that unexpectedly attracted huge numbers of listeners who were ready to adjust their schedule to sit by their radio set at specific time, which eventually become Prime time.

Chapter 8: The Prince

This is story of CBS – the smallest of the big broadcasters, its chef William Paley and his struggle with RCA and NBC that were under control of David Sarnoff. It also provides brief story of Edward Murrow – the first successful political commentator on mass radio show at CBS.

Chapter 9: Total Attention Control, or The Madness of Crowds

This is about political use of mass broadcasting in Germany during Nazi rules and their perceived success in manipulating population. Is also discusses similar use of broadcasting in USSR.

Chapter 10: Peak Attention, American Style

This is about American TV in 1950s that commanded unprecedented control over attention of population via just a few TV shows. It also discusses appearance of Nielsen popularity evaluation tool that facilitated competition.

Chapter 11: Prelude to an Attentional Revolt

This is about new invention by Zenith Corporation that provided technical ability for viewer to exercise power via remote control. It also looks at a number of scandals with TV shows such as quiz show 64000 that demonstrated sometime fraudulent character of these shows, undermining trust and consequently interest for them.

Chapter 12: The Great Refusal

This is about the great rebellion of baby boomers in 1960s that refused TV world and preferred to look for entertainment and information in the reality of their lives, filled with rock music, drugs, and political protest. It also discusses changed character of TV shows in this period that moved away from quiz to Mary Tailor Moor, Archie Banker, and M*A*S*H, bringing them much closer to issues of interest for population.

Chapter 13: Coda to an Attentional Revolution

This is about Jon Robbin and PRIZM – computer based analysis of American population by ZIP codes into 40 different groups so diverse in their attitudes that they could be called different nations. What followed, as one could expect, multitude of specialized stations like ESPN. Eventually it led to new competition even in the political news area by Fox news that practically ended monopoly of leftist intelligentsia on mass broadcast of political information. It also discusses channel serving and consequent decrease in attention span afforded by public to broadcasters.


Part III: The Third Screen

This part is about initial invasion of computers into information exchange business and how it started diminish the role of traditional broadcasters.

Chapter 14: Email and the Power of the Check-in

This is about the first encroaching of the new peer-to-peer tools such as E-mail. At this point these were mainly small number of computer enthusiasts, but writings were on the wall.

Chapter 15: Invaders

The next step in computers growing competition for attention was proliferation of computer games.

Chapter 16: AOL pulls them in

This is about final part of initial computer invasion: massive expansion of e-mails with AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe. The interesting part of this story is the failure of big business that supported Prodigy to effectively compete with more entrepreneurial AOL. Nevertheless AOL also went down in early 2000 with advance of free e-mail provided via Internet.


Part IV: The Importance of Being Famous

This part is about attention attracted by celebrities that created qualitatively new phenomenon when technology made information access available at will.

Chapter 17: Establishment of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex

This chapter starts with process of creating celebrities, initially by Time with its Man of the Year cover. It continues with analysis of mechanics of “illusion of intimacy” that makes lots of people allocate extraordinary amount of time and attention to lives of and gossips about some celebrity, consequently opening channel for precisely aimed advertisement and sales of related goods.

Chapter 18: The Oprah Model

This chapter is analysis of a subset of celebrity culture when celebrity is becoming daily visitor to your house discussing issues that she makes look like relevant to you, even if they, quite obviously, are not.

Chapter 19: The Panopticon

This is about simultaneously developed attention grubbers based on TV from MTV boom to reality shows: all designed to allow people to jump out of their real live into much more interesting virtual world, the process that was always basis of art, but now dramatically more powerful due to technical ability to make the story as real, if not more real, than actual reality.


Part V: Won’t Be Fooled Again

The final part is about much more matured Internet of 2000s and that opened attention market place to practically everybody, shifting not only consumption, but also production of information to wide-open world.

Chapter 20: The Kingdom of Content: This Is How You Do It

This chapter is about process of division of proceeds from selling attention between actual producers of content and Internet platforms that support delivery. That’s how Google and Facebook become such a huge recipients of ad dollars with limited success in producing content.

Chapter 21: Here Comes Everyone

This is about population producing their own content bloggers, YouTube producers and such.

Chapter 22: The Rise of Clickbait

This is about specific technic to attract attention, clicks, and consequently revenues via planting some outrages that makes people to get involved in mass.

Chapter 23: The Place to Be

This is the story of Facebook, which provided widely used platform for communication between people and presentation to the world of trivialities of everybody’s live.

Chapter 24: The Importance of Being Microfamous

This is a funny piece about getting micro fame by accumulating “friends” and fans on social media.

Chapter 25: The Fourth Screen and the Mirror of Narcissus

Another new invention that attracts lots of attention came with smart telephones, in other word handheld communication computers that allowed people maintain constant communication with each other via texting, voice, and lately video. It also allow immediate catching of events to electronic media and distributing these images to the whole world.

Chapter 26: The Web Hits Bottom

The next step is from mass broadcasting to personalized tracking and advertising based on computerized analysis of individual behavior on the web.

Chapter 27: A Retreat and a Revolt

This is about development during period after 2010 when paid content providers like Netflix moved decisively to develop their own content, taking attention away from free advertisement based media.

Chapter 28: Who’s Boss Here?

The final chapter is about the latest development that potentially could remove even possibility of traditional advertisement as it existed so far – implementation of ad blocking. It would make for switch from indirect payment for entertainment when people were getting it for free and paid later when buying advertised goods and services to direct payment when people would just pay for entertainment they want.

The Temenos

The epilogue is about the future, which is obviously unclear. Whether the new (oldest) form of direct purchasing of entertainment or old (last 3 centuries at most) form if indirect purchasing of entertainment will be dominant is unknown. Most probably both forms will coexist for a while into the future. The final word is that live experience amounts to whatever we pay attention to, and the fight for getting this attention will never subdue.


It is an interesting angle to the story of mass communication and entertainment. It could easily be extended back to Roman times with their “bread and circuses” motto. I think that the most interesting part here is ability of mass communicators to attract attention to their product and methods they used to get it done. It is not only advertisement for goods and services, but also political action in democracy or any system for that matter that are critical for condition of society. Depending on who and how can get attention of the active majority and direct it into carefully selected points of reality or false reality, the society could implement effective methods of achieving well being for population as it happened in market based democracies of early America and period of British industrial revolution or it could implement ineffective methods that lead to hugely tragic economic mismanagement and loss of live as it happened in communal, market denying societies of Russia, China, or Nazi Germany in XX century.


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