The Attention Merchants

The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
By: Tim Wu
Narrated by: Marc Cashman
Length: 15 hrs and 26 mins
4.4 out of 5 stars (620 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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 resale of human attention became the defining industry of our time.

Feeling attention challenged? Even assaulted? American business depends on it.

Attention merchant: an industrial-scale harvester of human attention. A firm whose business model is the mass capture of attention for resale to advertisers. 

In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of messaging, advertising enticements, branding, sponsored social media, and other efforts to harvest our attention. Few moments or spaces of our day remain uncultivated by the "attention merchants", contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this condition is not simply the byproduct of recent technological innovations but the result of more than a century's growth and expansion in the industries that feed on human attention. From the pre-Madison Avenue birth of advertising to the explosion of the mobile web; from AOL and the invention of email to the attention monopolies of Google and Facebook; from Ed Sullivan to celebrity power brands like Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian, and Donald Trump, the basic business model of "attention merchants" has never changed: free diversion in exchange for a moment of your consideration, sold in turn to the highest-bidding advertiser. Wu describes the revolts that have risen against the relentless siege of our awareness, from the remote control to the creation of public broadcasting to Apple's ad-blocking OS. But he makes clear that attention merchants are always growing new heads, even as their means of getting inside our heads are changing our very nature - cognitive, social, political, and otherwise - in ways unimaginable even a generation ago.   

“A startling and sweeping examination of the increasingly ubiquitous commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention.... We’ve become the consumers, the producers, and the content. We are selling ourselves to ourselves.” (Tom Vanderbilt, The New Republic)   

“An erudite, energizing, outraging, funny and thorough history.... A devastating critique of ad tech as it stands today, transforming 'don't be evil' into the surveillance business model in just a few short years. It connects the dots between the sale of advertising inventory in schools to the bizarre ecosystem of trackers, analyzers and machine-learning models that allow the things you look at on the web to look back at you.... This stuff is my daily beat, and I learned a lot from Attention Merchants.” (Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing)  

“Illuminating.” (Jacob Weisberg, The New York Review of Books

©2016 Tim Wu (P)2016 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Tim Wu has written a profoundly important book on a problem that doesn't get enough - well, attention. Attention itself has become the currency of the information age, and, as Wu meticulously and eloquently demonstrates, we allow it to be bought and sold at our peril." (James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History)

"I couldn't put this fascinating book down. Gripping from page one with its insight, vivid writing, and panoramic sweep, The Attention Merchants is also a book of urgent importance, revealing how our preeminent industries work to fleece our consciousness rather than help us cultivate it." (Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package)

"Television entranced the masses. Digital media, more insidiously, mesmerizes each of us individually. In this revelatory book, Tim Wu tells the story of how advertisers and programmers came to seize control of our eyes and minds. The Attention Merchants deserves everyone's attention." (Nicholas Carr, author of Utopia Is Creepy and The Shallows)

What listeners say about The Attention Merchants

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

It's Been Sold

Ever wonder why you have so little attention for the important things in life?

Your attention is being sold; it's been sold incrementally over the years.

Marc Cashman beautifully narrates fifteen hours of a 'brief' history of tactics and trends in advertising.

This is great book for you if you're interested in gaining control of your attention, find out where it's gone, who has taken it, and how they stole it from you. The why is money, but not for as much as you would think.

11 people found this helpful

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Largely a history of advertising

Any additional comments?

3.5 stars. A well-done book that largely acts as a detailed history of advertising and how advertising has been amplified and exacerbated by the various screens in our lives (from the first screen, film, through subsequent screens of television, computers, and finally mobile devices). Wu briefly touches upon other, older forms of attempting to harness attention (religion and governmental propaganda being prime examples), but the bulk of the book is a catalog of the ever-evolving commercial efforts to wrest our limited attention from us in a ploy to sell goods. I think the book could have been better and more illuminating if Wu had spent some additional time explaining the science of attention, why we are swayed, and the cognitive reasons why the ubiquitousness of mobile devices is so devastating. That said, the book covers its topic thoroughly and is engaging if for no other reason than its topic permeates our modern lives. The book is at its best and most interesting as it heads into the 21st Century and tackles social media and the like, the way that social media makes us each a narcissus, and how the minute details that can now be tracked make attention harvesting easier and our need for escape from such harvesting all the more urgent.

11 people found this helpful

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Well written criticism of the ad industry

This sweeping history of the ad industry through print, radio, TV and digital is fascinating and important. The crux of the argument is that media companies and advertisers gang up to capture our attention through any means necessary. There are a few heroes who genuinely try to give customers good products, but a lot of these stories revolve around amoral attempts to capture attention through the lowest common denominator and use that control to sell items like Lucky Strikes cigarettes. The story culminates in our current age of online surveillance from giants like Google and Facebook, and the widespread acceptance that the aggregated attention of any audience is fair game to be sold. The saddest example is the selling of children's attention to corporations during school hours in the opening of the book. In order to have full agency in our lives, we have to be aware of the attempts to wrest it from us, and to that end, I recommend everyone read this excellent book.

1 person found this helpful

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perhaps george orwell was right


i travelled to connecticut recently, to attended my 35th college reunion
one of my classmates had been a producer for ABC news for many years
she told me, sadly, that she had recently decided to look for " non-TV " work

TV only exists, she said, "...as a method, to deliver the audience to the advertiser..."
network executives use programming only as the bait to catch retinas for commercials
the needs and wants of the advertisers relentlessly obliterate all other concerns

she suggested tim wu's book " the attention merchants " if i wanted to know more
wu's detailed examination of corporate efforts to capture our attention is stunning
advertising's " green-eyed monster " greedily wants to gobble up our very lives

wars, depressions and life's various setbacks have all been used as marketing tools
now, america's youthful fascination with social media is just " another way to get inside "
mr. wu's book as an insightful and cautionary guide to our modern media driven lives



2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Thought provoking

When I purchased this audio book I had hoped the author would elucidate what is going on with the rampant pillaging of personal private information. I fear nefarious use of such data. I was not expecting the author's deep, thoughtful historical analysis of the issues around advertising. Where he went, he went carefully and fearlessly.
I am not clear if cloud storage of data existed at the time of his writing. The level of cohersion to force individuals to use such data storage services is something I find dangerous and personally appalling.
I am an author and TV show host. Without my consent all my shows and the still photos I use to enrich the studio footage were uploaded to the cloud. I was then informed I had to pay monthly rent for the undesired storage or have the episodes removed from my home computer. Much data was mysteriously deleted from not only the mainframe but also my backup drive.
I rebelled and was able to reclaim my ownership of my own intellectual property, at least for a short while. Lately I faced a more subtle upload requirement of unpublished text and perfectly functioning portable storage drives are now malfunctioning. I heard the term ransomware. I would love to hear this author's opinions about that and it's impact on intellectual expression and ultimately freedom of speech. If someone you do not know can delete your thoughts and words at will, how safe are you as a creative?

3 people found this helpful

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Attention Merchants is a Revelation

Detailed, Clear, and magnificently laid out of how consumer attention became the most sought after commodity of all.

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Haunting

We must remember that we still have some control. Let’s use it. Reclaim attention and live.

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  • CB
  • 05-07-20

Weak. Little overview and insight.

90% of book blandly follows a selection of prominent pop culture phenomena or bubbles (Amos & Andy, Life Magazine, ). Weak. Very little overview and insight.

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Interesting

I enjoyed it. it was interesting but I had to speed up the reading because it was a bit slow.

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A Revelation

In the end, one of the best non-fiction books I've listened to in recent memory. I mean that literally-in the end. It was a slow start, a continually improving and enthralling middle, and a very strong finish. Could probably go back to somewhere near the midpoint of the book and listen to it again already.