the attention merchants

The Absolutely Outrageous Scandal of Advertising

Excerpt from Tim Wu’s excellent advertising text, The Attention Merchants.

This little bit of info is difficult to imagine these days. Yet, there was a time when Americans (world citizens, in fact) were unmolested by advertising pitches.


As David Halberstam writes, “Whereas at the turn of the century, only an occasional door-to-door salesman visited the American home, by the middle of the century a ceaseless stream of the most subtle electronic impulses created by the nation’s most richly rewarded hucksters was beamed into this new marketplace, relentlessly selling not just the American dream but an endless series of material products through whose purchase that dream might be more quickly achieved.” In this way, for the first time, to be at home and awake was, for most Americans, to be sold something. (my emphasis)

Of course, this is hardly the stuff of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This is the freedom to play in the consumer economy – something quite new back then. “Consumer freedom” to sample, test, shop for and own all kinds of inane products is now a concept that too many dolts confuse with the original thrust of the founders’ mission.  

The odd thing is that we’ve welcomed this. We’ve bought the radios, the TVs, the iPhones and the internet connections, only to be OUTRAGED when someone dares pitch us via app, pop-up, banner ad, Facebook ad, or email list.

What a dumb lot we are. We invited it, and we wail when the ad targeting systems don’t work perfectly. We willingly give Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Tik-Tok our personal information, locations and preferences, then we’re surprised when they use that data to deliver ads?




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