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

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  3,537 ratings  ·  508 reviews
One of the Best Books of the Year
The San Francisco Chronicle * The Philadelphia Inquirer * Vox * The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch ( a New Yorker and Fortune Book of the Year) and who coined the term "net neutrality”—a revelatory, ambitious and urgent account of how the capture and re-sale of human attention became the
Kindle Edition, 417 pages
Published October 18th 2016 by Vintage (first published October 4th 2016)
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Tim Wu
Aug 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)  ·  review of another edition
Learned an awful lot writing it.
Mario the lone bookwolf
The development of manipulation tools is described from medieval times until now and while the oldfashioned methods, from snake oil salesmen to war propaganda, until the beginning of the 20th century may seem obvious, the methods have meanwhile improved so far that nobody can be sure to be unmanipulated any more. From film to TV, personal computer, smartphone and whatever the next step will be, I tip on bio-digital fusion with tech.

As the most interesting aspect, I will pick the manipulation of
Jonathan Karmel
As a new book, this was only a 14 day loan from the library, and I felt like there was an implicit challenge from the author to finish the book before it was due. "You're probably wasting so much of your time staring at screens that you don't even have the ability to focus on a book long enough to finish it in 2 weeks."

This book is a history of how advertisers have tried to get inside our heads for the last 100 years. I enjoyed learning the story of Clark Stanley, the original snake oil salesman
Tadas Talaikis
Dec 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Yesterday was two months I was building my next startup and for a while was thinking about how to bring customers there for free (or as much as possible for free). Also for some time I was following some interesting projects on Facebook (ex., "ドープ Acolyte", above pic or "Keule Ruke", hey ;), below pic) and was thinking that previously mentioned goal can be achieved via some creative marketing. Last time I was just using something called "guerilla/ stealth marketing", ex. go to competitors' semin
Dec 12, 2016 rated it it was ok
I wasn’t so much disappointed with what’s in the book as what isn’t in the book. Like most people, I’ve lived through a lot of the technological changes detailed here; a blow-by-blow of the basics doesn’t really serve any purpose at this point. Unfortunately, that’s mainly what this book consist of: the obvious. It’s not wrong, and it’s well-written, but the book ultimately fails to do anything new or worthwhile.

Perhaps the most insidious thing about this kind of book is that it relies on its o
Mal Warwick
Nov 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
If you’ve been paying attention, you can’t have missed the changes in the character of advertising over the course of your life. Certainly, I have. Chances are, you were born in the age of radio, at the earliest. If so, you’ve witnessed a string of new technologies enter the realm of news and entertainment, almost always paired with aggressive advertising sooner or later: network television, cable TV, the personal computer, the Internet, and the smartphone.

In his insightful history of the busine
"As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine." Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants

The only thing missing from this read is the chapter I'm sure Wu will include in the paperback about this election.
Charles Haywood
Jan 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants” is part history and part social analysis. The history related in “The Attention Merchants” tells us something we all basically know—that economic forces simultaneously drive businesses to offer us “free” entertainment, while at the same time making our attention to that entertainment a product to be sold to advertisers. Hence the title. And, since everybody likes free stuff, and in a free market, new markets will always be sought and exploited, there is a natur ...more
Daniel Chaikin
Aug 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When you listen to half a book in April, then the rest in July, then immediately leave town for two weeks, then sit down for a review, you're first thought might be something like, what was the book about again?

So, in the discombobulated and scattered pieces of my recent memory, I can confidently say this was a pretty fun history of advertising. Wu really begins with the early news papers, especially the ones in the early 1800's that hit on the idea that they could make more money from advertisi
Jun 19, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It may be disappointing to some, but Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants reads like a history first and foremost and infrequently as analysis. The history is framed around this notion of an "attention merchant," - namely one who captures attention and re-sells it for commercial intent-
and while the term is a result of analyzing the trends of advertising and pop culture, there's not much room for trend analysis in the text. On one hand, while I prefer some analysis to accompany the history, it's fa
Otis Chandler
I liked this article from the author: ...more
Nov 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating, sobering and thought provoking survey of the eternal quest to "harvest" attention by various "agents", starting from organized religion since ancient times, to military recruitment advertisements during the world wars, culminating in the modern techniques of print, radio, TV and social media.
The book succeeds in giving a rich, whirlwind tour of both development of technologies as well as many, many personalities involved in spearheading the campaigns used on these platforms. I ha
Eugene Kernes
Mar 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: decision-making
Before the rise of attention merchants, there were places in our lives that were sanctuaries from advertising and commerce. As advertising has become ubiquitous to lives, our lives have become, as much as possible, commercially exploited. Advertising can be value adding through market discovery and useful services, or it can be value subtracting by taking away attention from what really matters. Either for appropriate or inappropriate reasons, those who influence others are considered attention ...more
Feb 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
‘Attention could be harvested on a mass scale and converted into unprecedented levels of commerce and military might.’

Wu detailed the evolution of the attention merchants, people who create things that get our attention and trade it for stuff. First there was patent medicine advertisements involving treatment such as the original ‘snake oil’, which gave rise to its meaning of useless medicine. Backlash was swift but World War I found advertisements work better than conscription, at least for Bri
Jul 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The basic premise of this book reflects my cynical world view 100%, so the author was preaching to the choir. I have a hatred for the constant barrage of advertising and marketing messages that rudely invade our senses incessantly.

This book tells the history of this invasion of our attention. Beginning, in the author’s version of the story, with a clever newspaper publisher in NYC in the early 1800’s who found a way to undercut his more expensive competitors. The author then tells the beats of
Great summary of the history of media and advertising - highly relevant for everyone in the media business. I expected some more details on how the latest generation of attention merchants work to track down their targets and where the industry is moving now, but the great historical chapters make up for it. This book will be my Christmas gift to my colleagues in Aftenposten - a Norwegian newspaper traditionally living off ads (80% of revenues) but increasingly converting to a digital subscripti ...more
Apr 12, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: design-type-etc
Disappointing, lazy, and superficial. This highly selective history is not even justified by a clear theory or argument. It's not that it's selective because it is trying to cherry pick facts to make an argument, there is no argument, it's just a weak history. I was waiting for a big redeeming discussion at the end, but it never came.
That said, it begins well: interesting background on snake oil, a bit about propaganda, French burlesque posters, etc, but it falls apart as it enters the second ha
Mike Zickar
I enjoyed this book (listened to the audio version) though I didn't find anything particularly revelatory about it. I was hoping for some insights into our media infatuation that would cause me to look at things in a new light, and I felt like this was a pretty standard telling of this history. . . ...more
Gaylord Dold
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2016. $28.95)

At a recent small college basketball game I was in the stands with perhaps twenty or thirty other fans, most, unlike me, parents of players, or friends of coaches, along with a few teachers and academic administrators. Sitting near me was the father of a female player who I knew to be on the court as a starter. This man, perhaps fifty years old, paunchy, pale and badly dressed, s
Jan 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An impressive and wide-ranging history of media and advertising from the late 19th century to today — interspersed with psychological research and philosophies of celebrity and consumption.

Like many good histories, Wu takes care in explaining phenomenon not in naturalistic, predestined terms but as the result of human decisions — often arbitrary, ego-driven and tainted by the sins of society. The origin of all sit coms was an audio blackface act underwritten by a consumer goods company as a last
Eustacia Tan
Jun 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nlb-ereads
I thought that I’ve already read this for a university class a long, long time ago, but apparently not! The Attention Merchants charts the rise of modern attention-grabbers, starting with the first newspapers and posters.

While you could probably piece together the story by reading books about the main players (newspapers, Google, Oprah, etc), The Attention Merchants manages to tie everything together through an emphasis on how each development changed the way the human attention was harvested an
Joseph Evans
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mike Walmsley
Dec 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I feel like a frog who is just noticing that the water around him has been warming for some time, and is now getting uncomfortably hot.
Nov 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Tim Wu manages to alight upon his subject as with butterfly wings, without ever mentioning the politically loaded term, MEDIA, which might succeed only in rousing tired old arguments from the "politically polarized" sides of the sort of debate meant to be aired on CNN or CSNBC. By naming his book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Wu cleverly sidesteps having his work shelved in dusty corners next to Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, or Al Franken which are inevitab ...more
Feb 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was mostly driven to Wu's book by the all the ads constantly pestering my peripheral vision, or jumping right in front, demanding an 'X' click. I was also wondering about the tricks Facebook and others use to keep my attention... how they manipulate the periodic drip of dopamine to keep me checking email or posts despite the steady wash of unwanted information and advertisements. Wu covers this, but he also more intent on the history of 'attention merchants:' those who who sell our attention. ...more
Excellent. A terrific history of marketing and consumer behavior over the past hundred years, from a time when attention merchants barely existed. Tim Wu connects disparate dots, adding context while foreshadowing developments to come.

The question raised by this book: Where and when should attention merchants conduct business?

In the end, Wu writes, we should reclaim our time and attention. When we read a book, become engrossed in work or play with children, we reclaim attention from the merchan
Dec 08, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been reading a few texts more oriented towards the "how" of the attention merchants (that is, the psychology of attention) so it was nice to get my hands on this much more history oriented text. Wu does go into a few tidbits of the "how" attention works, but his main focus is on the development of attention over the past century, and in that context he's put together a fascinating if somewhat broad overview of the topic, and he gives it a nice coverage. Certain specific topics are, maybe, g ...more
Todd Martin
Oct 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: culture-politics
There are only a few business models that have proved to be successful for media companies:
1. They can be publicly funded (as PBS and NPR were initially) or funded through private donations like Wikipedia (though this is not an approach taken by those looking to cash in on the venture).
2. Their product can be purchased by the customer directly (this is the model historically taken with books and movies but is now proving successful for streaming services like Netflix).
3. They can be made availa
Zhou Fang
Jan 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A compelling history of how attention has been marketed, going back all the way to penny papers in early American history. Tim Wu does an exhaustive job of chronicling the rise of newspapers, television, computers, and smartphones and how attention has been developed as a product over time. I felt that the book provides a lot of perspective on where we are today, and gives equal attention to all the different forms of media. It was refreshing that the book wasn't overly weighted towards tech-com ...more
Nov 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thoroughly enjoyable (er...) read - actually quite ambitious as it presents itself as a partial history of propaganda and advertising and showing how these threads (attitudes?) towards separating Americans from their money has evolved into separating Americans from their attention. I have some reservations about the book (more on that in a bit) but read it quite quickly and it falls into that strange area I have been feeling about some non-fiction of late: It could have been either 100 pages sho ...more
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Tim Wu is an author, a professor at Columbia Law School, and a contributing writer for the New York Times.. He has written about technology in numerous publications, and coined the phrase "net neutrality." ...more

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“As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.” 34 likes
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