The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu

From tanking newspaper costs with public announcements to self-imposed propaganda

How we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine [our] lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.

The Attention Merchants

In the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, an indulgence is one way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins. It’s what in financial markets can be considered an option: hedging against a future cost, you pay a fee in present time. The recipient of an indulgence must do something in exchange for it; usually, praying, or visiting a particular place. Catholicism is highly individualistic: you, and only you, have control over what awaits you when you meet your Maker. Indulgences is the exchange of your moral assets to pay for your moral liabilities.

Stretching it, indulgences can be paid with money. This led to abuse during the Middle Ages, and it became one of the main methods employed to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in what is now Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city of Rome.

How could someone believe that giving money to a priest would reduce your eventual time on Purgatory?

How could they not? Hundreds of years of routinely giving away money to the Church, the rich and the poor alike, made monetary indulgences a valuable good, and in turn a reliable source of funds for the popes that supersede the works at St. Peters for 120 years. It was meant to be, because priests were attention merchants.


Communication is, as we discussed in Language in Thought and Action, what makes progress possible.

If someone shouts at you, “Look out!” And you jump just in time to avoid being struck by a car, you owe your escape from injury to the fundamental cooperative act [of communication by means of noises]. […] You had, for the time being, the advantage of an extra nervous system in addition to yours.

Language in Thought and Action

Since the rise of civilisation, it has been known that capturing someone’s attention could also be used to capture some of his money. Theatres in the Ancient Greek and Roman era— are you not entertained?— gave way to troubadours and animal fights. But this form of mental fodder was thought as an exchange: you are amused, and in return you give me some money. Check out your closest tourist area: there’s likely someone acting out a performance in exchange for a tip.

Real breakthrough came when someone stopped seeing the masses as numerous clients, and started seeing them as an attractive product to sell. That someone was Benjamin Day, who in 1833 founded The Sun, a newspaper that marks the beginnings of what came to be known as penny press. Being sold, of course, by one penny, it made the news more available to lower-income readers, at a time when most papers cost five cents to buy. Day understood that newspapers buyers were the product, and his was the first attempt at, instead of selling the news to the readers, reselling the attention his newspaper draw to advertisers. He was the first of The Attention Merchants. A breed of their own, almost all sons of priests that understood the power of well versed words to command and control.


But for such undifferentiated attention to be valuable to anyone, [Benjamin Day] would have to amass a giant readership. That would mean making [The Sun] alluring to the broadest segment of society— by any means necessary.

The Attention Merchants

A consequence of that innovative business model is the total dependence on holding attention. Under the competition of similar newspapers, the race naturally ran to the bottom, to the grotesque and mind-blowing and enraging and vivid. Whatever engages what cognitive scientists now call “automatic” attention.

Such a race can only collapse and outburst public contempt when it’s taken too far.

I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard.

David Ogilvy

The race for our attention has been run in two dimensions. One is circular; new forms of entertainment attract by their novelty the attention of the wide population, like Season 1 of your favourite series. It’s fantastic, and new, and high quality, and draws your attention to it with charm. The novelty will nevertheless fade away, and newer formulas would be tried to hold your attention, each one more absurd than the others, until the final collapse and backlash. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Eventually, a new form of attention arises, and the circle starts again.

The second one is linear: it’s the rise the tides, where society has progressively given up more and more of its personal space in favour of sponsored entertainment. A troubadour could only grasp the attention of so many people in the village he was touring. But a newspaper could be circulated more easily, and spread as fast as the fastest vehicle. We could then carry it with us anywhere, but still have the ability to ignore it. Radio, TV and computers put an end to that: our house was now a place where ads could be run, but they weren’t something portable, and thus our commutes were save from publicity, up to a point. Eventually, smartphones had turned us into zombies, walking the street facing down, receptive to any stimulus coming from that tiny, luminous screen.

With that, also comes the intensity. Billboards do not have the same power that Amazon data-driven recommendations do, because they sit at different levels of what’s called the purchase funnel, or the steps consumers go through before making a purchase; billboards aim at making people aware of the product or the need for that product; Amazon places recommendations when the need has just been identified, making it much more effectively. The Holy Grail of advertising, one that people are eager to see, was eventually found.


Advertising never dies. It doesn’t matter how many times it gets killed; it eventually revives, like the phoenix, transformed and ready for another take. It’s biological; we are restless when we are bored, and we must always pay attention to something. The door for the advertiser is, thus, always open.

Understanding people is not a waste of time.

Mark Zuckerberg

It never dies because in the same way we pay attention, we want others to pay attention to us. It’s the hierarchical structure of our societies, predating even the first humans. We have evolved to climb the ladder, to become the peak of the pyramids and the role model of our peers. In biology, advertisers have found the secret for their immortality.

Our attention is designed to face inwards. It’s easy to be self-conscious, and hard to empathise. In the constant battle for our attention, networking tools like Google and Facebook culminate a process that started with dumping undifferentiated messages into the wild and approached the consumers slowly but inexorably. In marketing textbooks, you define a persona, a stereotype you aim at selling something to. Technology has provided us with the tools to now turn the persona into each person.


The show, however, must go on. But once they’ve reached out even the most hidden corners of our minds, the tide must keep rising.

Augmented Reality

There is backlash, though. Coming from all angles. Which, in a way, is conforming into two sides of how to approach entertainment.

One is exemplified by Google and Facebook, the classic Attention Merchants. The ubiquitous search engine and the everyone’s platform is leveraging all the data they can find to model you, so that you’re sold on anything they put in front of you before you even see it. The more they know about you, the merrier. Even if you’re not the one looking at the ads, someone similar to you is about to search something, and whatever they know about you can be extrapolated to understand that guy better. Each data point is more valuable because it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but inside their kingdom.

The other one is exemplified by Netflix and Apple. They champion privacy because the approach they take to entertainment doesn’t involve ads, but an extraordinary user experience. I won’t binge watch series for days on end if I’m interrupted by ads, nor will I buy a $1,000+ smartphone that’s slow because of the amount of ads in between me and the content I want to stare at.

We’ll see. It’s a new form of propaganda, a new battle fought for ‘our rights’ that resembles uncannily Pepsi’s championing The Pepsi Generation in an effort to turn long-term Coke drinkers to their side, by taking the moral high ground on behalf of users, while also damaging their greatest rival.

In the midst of this battle, several newspapers have taken one or the other side in their efforts to simply survive in a world dominated by supermassive black holes of attention. It seems that their many approaches can be put on the likes of an spectrum: from The Guardian’s approach that “allows us to keep our journalism accessible to all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford” with your “ongoing support”, to the New Yorker’s “you have 3 free articles left this month. Try the New Yorker, plus get a free tote. Subscribe now”, they’re struggling to make ends meet between what journalism that people needs and listicles that people click mindlessly.


Where does that leave us? Where we started. With an exchange, like the indulgences. I’m promised what I want, and I give you my attention and, directly or indirectly, my money. What’s always had been. One in which, if you want to embark yourself in entertainment, you will be able to do that so without being ripped off. Otherwise the situation, as told in this book, won’t hold for long.

Buy this book