Tim Wu on advertising, Donald Trump, and Google's central tragedy

Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, is perhaps best known for coming up with the phrase "net neutrality." In his last book, The Master Switch, Wu traced the history of modern communications and media consolidation. In his new book, The Attention Merchants, Wu delves into the history of advertising, propaganda, and media. Wu writes a history that begins with Benjamin Day’s idea to sell his paper, The New York Sun, for less than the cost of production and make up the difference through advertising; now, ads are even displayed in public schools.

Many media companies — including this one — aim to attract the attention of readers or viewers. That attention is then directed, at least theoretically, toward the ads the company serves. That model has expanded, however, with companies that consider themselves the tech sector — like Google or Facebook — borrowing the media model of serving ads to a captive audience, either through search results or through your social media feed. Ad tech has come a long way since 1833! I spoke to Wu about the long view on advertising, the role of propaganda in politics, and the rise of celebrity culture.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. It also took place before the presidential election on November 8th.

 The New York Sun’s November 26th, 1834 front page. Public domain

I wanted to start by talking about what I came to think of in reading your book as the original sin of news, which was The New York Sun in 1833. I think is the first ad-subsidized newspaper, is that right?

As far as I know.

It was a cheaper way of producing papers so that more people would buy them, right?

It’s the model that has gone on to form everything in so much of our lives, which is giving away something at very low cost to free, and then hoping you’ll gain enough of an audience that you can resell the audience and make money that way. That’s why I call Benjamin Day the first attention merchant. I think it was the original sin, and he was the first to do it.

From there, things went in a couple of different directions, because obviously you have patent medicine advertisements, and then you also have propaganda developing very early on in the 20th century. Can you tell me a little bit more about the development of propaganda?

One of the undercurrents of my book is that advertising, or even more fundamentally trying to get access to people's minds, was a fairly obscure business model restricted to the tabloid press. Advertising wasn't really used by respectable corporations. The only institution that I would say used propaganda regularly, consistently prior to the 20th century, was the church. In fact, the Catholic Church came up with the word "propaganda," in the sense of propagating the faith. No, I don't mean the church advertised, but I do mean the church was very interested in getting access to people's minds and the way they were thinking.

Governments, there were occasionally leaders who would give speeches or have big rallies. But the systematic effort to gain access to people's minds to persuade them of things didn't really develop until the British government in WWI made the discovery that they needed an army. The original government propaganda campaign was really a recruiting campaign for the British army. That started more out of necessity than anything else, and many other historians believe that the credibility and success of the British propaganda effort, and later the American propaganda effort, is part of what drove the development of a true advertising industry of the time we talk about today.

 James Montgomery Flagg’s recruitment poster for the US Army. James Montgomery Flagg / Library of Congress

Strategies for manipulating attention got more sophisticated with political propaganda and have been used to political ends ever since. How is that playing out here in the US with the election?

There's long been a learning relationship between government and commercial propaganda or advertising. Earlier in the 20th century, they used the same word: everything was called propaganda. Commerce learned greatly from the efforts of the British propaganda in the First World War. Later on you could see very clearly the German Third Reich learning from American advertising techniques in the '30s, and also some of the dissemination techniques: the idea of prime time, the use of radio en masse. In our time in the United States, there is less government propaganda. There was urging people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, a kind of government urging, but a lot more money spent on political campaigns.

If you've been alive in the United States this past year, it's impossible to escape, essentially, the propagandizing of both sides and other primary candidates. The general rule is if they use all the methods they can, these are now campaigns with very large budgets, they use the most sophisticated advertising techniques available: micro-targeting of groups, very careful tailoring of messages, you name it. People specialize in political work or commercial work can easily go between the two.

"One candidate... can really appear like five different candidates"One of the advantages in politics is often you want to say different things to different people but still be the same person. There's been a rise in politics of efforts to target voters with exactly the right message on the thing that matters to them. One candidate, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, can in some ways really appear like five different candidates. For some people it's really they're the immigration candidate. For another one they really care about women's rights. For another one it's all about trade. Exactly what people care about. That's been a big development in politics over the last 10 years or so; 10 or 15 years.

One of the things that you wrote about government propaganda was "What the audience most wants is an excuse to experience fully the powerful feelings already lurking within them, but that their better selves might lead them to suppress." I'm curious to know how that plays out with online news organizations, social networks, and public life.

That quote was part of the book reflecting on Hitler's appeal, so it's somewhat a dark fact. I think that there's no question that holding an audience and really attracting attention — you can see this from this election cycle very clearly — it is to speak to people's unconscious fears, their humiliations, their darkest impulses, is an incredibly effective way of both gaining attention and also gaining support. It was shown in the 20th century that a group is the best, most effective way of concentrating those feelings. I think you can see in Donald Trump's case, he's very effectively used rallies where people are united with these really powerful, dark feelings to drive his base.

In previous times, the idea was you'd then translate that same message to radio or to television. It’s a little more difficult with an independent media to do this, but certainly something that Trump in particular tried to do. I wouldn't say he's the only one. Many of the populist politicians, even Bernie Sanders, sometimes tap into a certain anger that people feel and want to express. I'd say those techniques have not changed at all and are still being used in politics very often today.

hitler poses for portraits Wikimedia


One of the things that you talk about is that in propaganda in particular — and this is also from the Hitler section of your book — that reductive, emotionally engaging rhetoric works a lot better than complex thought. That seems depressing to me.

Here we are, I'm an academic, I hope to appeal to rational people's minds at times, but it is depressingly true, as Mein Kampf pointed out, that many times it's easier — and advertisers know, too — to appeal to people a very simple message repeated over and over, and one that appeals to their emotions. Now, you can also appeal to uplift-like emotions, but you certainly get a rise out of people appealing to dark emotions.

Many of the successful internet content companies of the 21st century have similar appeal. They're a little different: they're beautiful cats, heroic pictures, things like this. The fact, I think, that's proven over and over in history: if you want to get people's attention, you begin with emotional appeals. That will stick very straightforward things like incredibly cute kittens or "we hate this group" will get you far. Writing this book is a depressing fact about the mass media and about us, but one that I think is better to know about than ignore.

You mentioned that often online companies and online new organizations make an attempt to appeal directly to emotionality in order to capture attention just as much as politicians do. This seems to be very much a feature of a lot of public speech. Has it had any effect on discourse?

There's an ethical line. I hope this answers your question. I don't think it's unethical or wrong to try to get people interested in your topic by simplifying it to some degree. The question is: I think at a second level, once you have someone engaged, is whether you present the issue in its full complexity, or whether you keep it at this distorted, simplistic, stereotype, as Walter Lippmann said, way of looking at it? The people I respect do use attentional hooks because this is a world where we're incredibly ... For all of human history, getting people's attention has been hard, but it's particularly hard now. The question is whether you stick with that, or whether you acknowledge some of the complexity in the situation you're talking about. If you're discussing something like the conflict in Syria, is it a straightforward, simple thing you say, "These people are evil, we need to get them," or is it a more complicated undertaking? I think there's more ethical ways to handle these situations.

I notice in this book that you spend a lot of time dealing with the folks who produce advertising, who produce propaganda. I'm curious to know: to what degree are we as audience members complicit in this process?

We're highly complicit. We have trained ourselves to expect content to be free. There's some nice things about free content. It reaches more people, and in that way might facilitate broader readership, but I don't think it's a sustainable. I think it's a pipe dream that you can have high-quality stuff and hope it to be free forever. There are some very narrow instances where I think it's sustainable. Somehow Wikipedia has managed to keep things going.

"I am somewhat blaming us, the readers, for being so demanding that we never pay for anything."

In most cases, the price of free is going to involve a lot of advertising and increasing demand by advertisers that the platform deliver ever more viewers and guarantee what it's doing, which ultimately, usually leads to degradation of the product. If we're talking about media or content, increasing moves toward clickbait, simplistic messages, and also content designed to keep you clicking away. The pressure to do that, I think you look at the story of the web, that has been the evolution of content on the web over the last 15 years or so.

I'm not blaming anyone involved. Actually, I am somewhat blaming us, the readers, for being so demanding that we never pay for anything, and so resistant to any micropayment or subscription schemes. One of the things I say in this book is, "Listen, we've got to suck it up and start paying for stuff if we want our media to be better." There's a duty to present good subscription programs that are ad-free and really deliver value, but this idea that we can coast around, never pay for anything and expect great journalism is a pipe dream and a bad joke. I think it's time to come to grips with that.

There are times that audiences have rebelled. There was the initial rebellion against patent medicine, and then there was a fizzled rebellion in the 1960s that wound up being co-opted by advertising itself. Is it possible that these rebellions will inevitably be co-opted by advertising? A lot of advertisers seem to have read Naomi Klein's No Logo, and have been basing advertising strategies basically around an anti-advertising book. I'm curious to know how that interplay works.

One of the most remarkable things about capitalism is how adaptive it is. For example, if someone is themselves an anti-consumerist, you can sell them a T-shirt that says they're anti-consumerist, or they'll have their own motive. You can sell to anything, even impulses that are against buying or selling. That's why I think it's so interesting. The story on revolts against advertising is they do happen periodically. They tend to be, I think, because the industry expands, expands, expands, and at some point, people go crazy. It's not everybody, but a certain number of people say, "This is too much." I reached that level probably before other people. I was on an airplane yesterday. It was an airline that I don't fly very often, Air Canada. They started running full volume ads over the PA system when you're sitting there. I said, "I can't believe you actually run this. This is crazy." That's an example. What can I do in that situation?

"People do get fed up."People do get fed up. They feel that their minds are being intruded upon. In the first half of the book, those movements tend to led to legislative responses; government crackdowns of one kind or another. Over the last 50 years, that hasn't really happened. As you pointed out, advertisers have become incredibly sophisticated at trying to read the revolution and join it, so that somehow they're on your side. They confuse the whole thing until it disappears or collapses of its own weight. The '60s are the strongest example where the countercultural impulses, which were originally very anti-consumerist, gave birth to a new round of consumption of groovier stuff. That drives Marxist theorists crazy. I think it's where things are.

the attention merchants Knopf


I am curious to know if you feel that we're in a revolt, particularly because it seems at the end of the book, you believe that we might be, but the very beginning of the book shows advertising moving into a relatively new realm, which is the public school. I'm curious how those two things are brushing up against each other.

I think we are in a state of at least partial rebellion against advertising. There are little signs. There's a lot of people who swear off advertising altogether as if it's a lifestyle. There's prevalence of ad blockers. There's cord-cutting, which is its own way of getting away from advertising. There's subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon, HBO Go are alternative ways of getting content. There's been an enormous shift in television revenue. Part of what that leads to, however, is as people try to get away from ads and find ways to avoid or ignore them, advertisers get more desperate and look for different areas to put ads.

That's part of what drives the moves into places like schools or state parks are becoming advertised to. It also drives the efforts to try to make advertising more secretive or surreptitious. The efforts to less put an ad right in front of you, but more influence your decision making one way or another, whether it's what products are recommended for you on Amazon, or in the future, you think about self-driving cars or Internet of Things. What is your refrigerator going to order? What options does it show you? I think the market for subtle influence is one that promises to be quite lucrative as advertising is seen to be less effective because of the extent of rebellion.

On the other hand, even though we have these revolts, there's still a lot of money being spent on advertising. I believe that some of it is getting through. There's also demographic breaks going on, which is very interesting. Older people tend to more patiently watch television and sit there through the ads, while you can't say this generally, the general trend is that younger, especially very young people, the idea of sitting through advertisements is unthinkable. There's a sense of the demographics of who is maybe watching the ads is shifting as well.

I like that we're getting the demographics, because I want to talk with you a little bit about targeted in tracking campaigns, which is something that recurs in your book. It first starts with targeting women with advertising, and then it gets more sophisticated with the zip code mapping, and then of course now with Facebook and Google. I'm curious to know what what effects these tracking efforts have and what that means for us as consumers?

Let me begin with what you discussed, which is it is fascinating to take the very long view on targeted advertising and how it evolved because it shows you how amazing it is where we've gotten. In the beginning of advertising there was just ads, and they weren't targeted specifically to any group. Then there was a big split between men and women advertising. There was a feeling in the 1920s particularly that the key was to target female consumers, and that you had to do so differently. They hired women to do so, or created things with more colors and so forth. That was their thinking. Then things started to be racially distinguished advertising. Mainly in the '40s, '50s, Pepsi advertised to African Americans. Then the '70s, you start to see the beginning of geographically targeted advertising. "We think on the Upper West Side, this kind of person is living there, and the Upper East Side is a different kind of person, so we'll target people by zip codes." You go further and further until you're in our present day where you're targeting individuals or types of individuals.

Then even more interesting, in my opinion, is the effort to try to target particular mental states. Google's success as an advertising platform has a lot to do with the promise that they're delivering you a customer right when they're trying to make a decision. They're in that mental state of being on the lookout for something and considering their options. Getting at that state, that moment, you're not necessarily when you're watching television thinking about life insurance, but if you're searching for life insurance on Google, it's pretty clear that you are. That has always been their promise. It's a lot more sophisticated. As you know, tracking and other spying technologies have led to great development of profiles among ad tech firms, which try further to get at what might be of interest to you based on a rough guess as to what you are or who you are.

"Boy, it's been a lot of invasion of privacy to get there."

I have mixed feelings about those types of advertisements. They have always promised to be more relevant to you, but I don't know if people have found that experience to be as gratifying as was promised. I'm not sure they've really delivered. Boy, it's been a lot of invasion of privacy to get there. The whole enterprise of ad tech, to me, has been a depressing undertaking for everyone involved. I think we might all look back on it and regret it.

You do spend a lot of time talking about Google's ad words. I think since you probably shipped the book, it came out that Google has started tracking personally identifiable data I think in an effort, probably, to catch up with Facebook. Is there any way to avoid this kind of surveillance when most of the web carries Google ads, Facebook "Like" buttons or things like that?

There's one way: Google could start selling its product. You could subscribe to Google for a $1 month and be completely tracking, completely ad-free. I would certainly sign up for that. We don't have to. Even if you love the internet and web, the difference between advertising and the web, they're not the same thing. I think you can love the promise of the web even, but not feel like you have to love advertising models. There's been obviously a lot of failures to come up with micropayment systems. Not every subscription system has worked, but just because something doesn't work once doesn't mean it can't work at some point. I think the lovers of the web really need to be on the lookout for better ways to fund what we want to see out of this technology. It's ultimately ours.

I think we're all in a bad place here. I know how we got here, we needed funding and there we go, but a lot of sites have gotten in these situations, Google among them. Google was originally very opposed to advertising, thought it was a corrupting influence, and now they're breaking all of their own rules that they set up for themselves. It's tragic in some ways, because they thought they could avoid it, just have a few ads and be fine. But when they went public and promised increasing revenues, it means they've had to devote an enormous amount of their engineering ability into making better ads instead of making better products, or making themselves a better platform for ads. I think we're in a bad place, and I think it'd be great if companies like Google and Facebook could get back to trying to improve their products as opposed to improving themselves as an ad platform.

What role does celebrity culture and personal branding fit in all of this? There is some sense in which we're all advertisers now. We're using social media to advertise our identity. I'm curious to know the degree to which this has bled through the culture.

The rise of celebrity as the sine qua non of attracting attention is really an interesting, fascinating development in the 20th century culture. I think there was once upon a time a headline was good enough for something. The people started realizing by the '70s the degree to which people pay attention to a celebrity versus anything else is orders of magnitude different. All of us are vulnerable, or some of us will say, "Oh, I just want substance," but most people have their own celebrities.

Just to take one example, Trump proved completely irresistible to anyone, even people who hated him. Over the last election cycle, his ratings were over the top. I have to say, I think in a world where getting attention is the first step for almost every venture, in a world where celebrities get attention more than anyone else, the value of celebrity is only going to increase, and in fact, become even more integrated. It may become in the future that it's unthinkable to run for office before developing a celebrity reputation, that that's where you start; you build your fame and then you go for it. Or no nonprofit maybe in the future will have a president other than someone who is already world famous because that's how you get attention to causes. I think we're probably in for more of that.

The celebrity industrial complex isn't going away, that's what I hear you saying.

No, I think it's becoming more central to things. Part of it has to do with us. I'm not blaming us; I'm saying it's the way we're wired. Having done all of the research on the book, and I've read a lot of the literature on celebrity, I feel like still no one completely understands why people are so obsessed with relatively normal people who are on the screen or in office, but there's no question about the effect of it.

Even in journalism at all, you write one story that's about this promising proposal, another story that's about you know how Harry Potter teaches us about something, or anything about Donald Trump, and you notice the traffic numbers are so different. It's unavoidably the case. It's here we are, and I think more to come.


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