I never knew “snake oil salesmen” were a real thing until I read The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu. It turns out that not only did snake oil salesmen exist, but that they were essentially the fish with legs of the evolutionary process of advertising, which has led us to the likes of Facebook and Google today.
The Attention Merchants tells the history of this evolution. It provides insight into how advertising has shaped the world, seeped into every part of our lives, and created behemoths like Facebook and Google—for better and for worse. By the end of reading the book, my understanding, appreciation, and fear, of advertising’s power had completely changed.
Because, as the artist Richard Serra is quoted saying in the book,
“It is the consumer who is consumed…You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer. He consumes you.”
Here’s a story to illustrate this point.
Opening the Auction
At the Facebook Merchants Hall, the Auctioneer, a nearly-middle-aged man in slacks and a polo shirt takes the stage.
“Welcome everyone! Today is an exciting day for us, and I can see based on the huge turnout that it is an exciting day for you too.”
There’s only a smattering of applause, since most people present are preoccupied by their phones and computers.
“With today’s launch of our breakthrough attention harvesting technology, we have a huge amount of new inventory. It’s the dawn of a new era, and it’s an honor to have you all here to be part of it! So without further ado, let’s start the bidding!”
At the word “bidding,” everyone’s heads pop up from their devices.
Up for bids
On the huge screen behind the auctioneer appears the image of an American teenage girl, complete with a profile of her personal information, interests, and habits.
The Auctioneer opens the auction.
“First up is Madison Baumgartner. Quite the attractive item! You can expect to have her attention for multiple hours a day, so we’re going to start the bidding at five dollars. Five dollars. Do I have five dollars?”
The room erupts with a flurry of bids.
Bids for Madison are skyrocketing, and some can’t keep up.
“She’s exactly what we’re looking for,” a rep from the American Vegetable Association says, “but we just can’t afford these prices.”
“You’re telling me,” laments the woman beside her, who works for an educational institute, “Sometimes I wish we were as addictive as these other guys. Then we could afford to get the attention of people like Madison.”
“Yeah. It’s a shame. We’re going to go ask Bill Gates if we can have some money. Wanna come?”
Too Good to Be True
As the action continues, Madison’s price is bid up to $15. Then, from the back of the room, a man with a mustache wearing a trench coat, hat, sunglasses, shouts, “$30!”
The din of bidding screeches to a halt. Aside from a few groans from losing bidders, the hall goes silent .
The Auctioneer, almost drooling with greed and joy, hollers, “Sold! For $30! To the gentleman in the hat!”
But then he notices something and his grin evaporates. He recognizes the bidder.
“Don, is that you?”
The trench coat man shifts nervously, “No. Who’s Don? My name is, uhh, Jack.”
“Don, I know it’s you. I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you to leave. We’d love to have you, but we’re not allowed to sell to you tobacco companies any more.”
The cigarette representative rips off his mustache in dismay, as a pair of security guards appear to each side of him to escort him out of the hall.
The Auctioneer picks back up where he left off, “Madison is still for sale! Twenty dollars. Do we have twenty dollars?”
A few bids later, a rep from a makeup company finally puts in the bid that makes her the proud owner of Madison’s attention.
“Sold! For $21.45!”
The makeup rep smiles. The Auctioneer doesn’t stop to move on though, “One down, a couple billion to go! Next up we have…”
Dig Deeper: The Attention Merchants
Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, we’re all up for bids, just like Madison. The attention merchants set the price and none of the proceeds goes our way. We do, however, set the supply. So how much are you willing to give them?
Tim Wu’s attention-grabbing book, The Attention Merchants, might help you decide.
Not Grabbing Your Attention?
For more book recommendations, reviews, check out my complete Shortcuts to Awesome library here.