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The Attention Deficit

Two books criticizing advertising lose focus when it comes to politics

Once upon a time a lot of hope was invested in adblockers. Many saw them as a way to halt the blight of online advertising. The thinking was that if everyone got adblockers, it would not only make the ads disappear, but it might make the internet a more enjoyable place, too. We would save battery life, and our sites would load faster, since they wouldn’t be so busy downloading pop-ups we all hate and invasive tracking software that collects, stores, and sells everything we do online. But, alas, the fabled adblocker was merely a Band-Aid, and a flimsy one at that, and ads continued to find ways around it. One blocker even let in oxymoronic “non invasive” ads by default, demonstrating a point acclaimed technology theorist Tim Wu makes in his recent book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads: that “what makes capitalism so powerful is its resilience and adaptability.”

In The Attention Merchants, Wu takes his readers on a historical tour of how advertising adapts to technological advancements that alter society. From penny-press newspapers to news feeds, the “attention merchants,” as he calls them, are able to seize each novel development and capture attention to sell back to advertisers.

Wu’s primary point is that advertisers sell attention for resale to groups who want to buy it; Mara Einstein’s Black Ops Advertising, which hit the shelves the month before, argues that ads are now better camouflaged into other types of content. The line between advertising and content is becoming more “confusing,” Einstein, an adwoman-turned-academic who describes herself as a “meta-synthesizer” on her website, notes. We live in the murky age of clickbait, social media, native ads (advertising masquerading as editorial in publishing environments), content marketing (corporations creating their own media), and all the types of trickery that convey less-than-transparent corporate messaging.

Both authors bring a lot to the table. Einstein provides in depth descriptions and diagnoses of modern advertising, but sometimes description comes at the cost of analysis. Wu casts a wide net, giving depth and context to attention conquest, but The Attention Merchants is also, ironically, prone to losing focus (social media users who want to be famous and Adolf Hitler both may be attention hungry, but the similarities end there). Both Wu and Einstein refuse to grapple with the political and economic realities that lurk behind ads in a meaningful way. What’s wrong with advertising, they ask? It’s manipulative; it’s invasive; there’s too much of it, they claim.

What Wu and Einstein often fail to see is that the problem isn’t so much advertising as how it fits into a larger logic of neoliberalism, how advertising, in many cases, is a private subsidy for what would be public goods in just about any other liberal democracy. Imposing the “logic” of the market on health care, drinking water, housing, and other social goods by tactics like privatization and deregulation often results in austerity. And individuals living in these conditions, and saturated with the idea that the way to get ahead in life is through personal and consumer choices, rather than collective action, are vulnerable to the siren songs of corporations.

The first anecdote in The Attention Merchants describes the tension between a neoliberal logic and advertising perfectly, just about the one place in the book this conflict is really discussed in earnest. The Twin Rivers school district in California—“never wealthy” Wu qualifies—was suffering from budget cuts, due to austerity imposed by “the housing crisis” and a “government meltdown.” Not only were extracurriculars slashed, so was the heat. The district had to answer that age-old question faced by every human or institution whose basic needs are not being met by the government or “the market”: how to pick up the slack in the budget. They decided to partner with a company called Education Funding Partners, which promised to use “the power of business to transform public education.” This company was willing to offer the district $500,000 dollars, and in exchange the district would welcome Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to put up corporate advertising in the same spaces teachers were presumably teaching kids how to think in. Instead of asking why we aren’t taxing the rich, regulating the banks, or closing prisons, Wu merely pines for a time when schools and other parts of life were sanctuaries from commerce and ads.

Einstein, meanwhile, argues that branded content and native ads—spin—now operate on a level playing field with journalism—or truth, to grossly oversimplify. She shows that the more content brands create, the larger their voice becomes in our pay-to-play, algorithm-rules-all media environment. Needless to say, this totally undermines the potential of journalism to hold powerful actors accountable to the public. Einstein quotes Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed, enthusing that “When the advertising is content—good content [readers are] willing to click on and engage with, and share if it’s good—that’s the future for publishers.” In the book we learn that big companies like GE and IBM are generating more content “per week than Time did in its heyday.” As these companies churn out endless favorable coverage of themselves, and other “informative” material, they are suppressing the not-so favorable, actually newsworthy, fare by pushing it down in the search results. Einstein focuses on the pet food company, Purina, which loves to post cat videos and Tweet at pet owners directly, but fails to tell the story of how their pet chow has allegedly killed dogs around the globe. Or Coca-Cola’s Journey, an online branded magazine, which doesn’t cover how Coke’s overuse of water has detrimental effects on agriculture in different parts of the world.

Wu proposes “an act of will on the part of the individual,” a “human reclamation project” to spend “blocks of time, like the weekend ( . . . ) beyond the reach of the attention merchants.” Einstein has a stronger proposal which could lead to more radical change: “It’s like recycling and the environment: every little bit helps, but only collective action, not individual choices, will affect the system and the techno-behemoths.” She believes we should break up big firms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, just like we did Standard Oil. Still, such a proposal doesn’t answer the question of paying for the things advertising supports, like journalism, for instance.

Both Einstein and Wu, a “policy advocate,” according to his bio in the back flap of the book, seem stumped by this question. Wu cites ad-free subscriptions like Netflix as potential solution, though he overlooks the fact that newspaper subscriptions are tanking, and while consumers are flocking to Netflix, the streaming giant doesn’t have a profitable business model. Einstein sees the limitation of suggesting a loss-making model as a way of paying for journalism or education, but no way around it. She suspects that “An ad-free media universe posits a reversion to the times of early newspapers when the only people who could afford access to information were the wealthy,” and adds, “I’d pay to use Google. And at the risk of sounding like a libertarian, let the market decide.”  

While ads did bring newspapers to a broader public, before ads were common we did have a public subsidy: the postal subsidy.

Let the market decide? Wu actually reviewed Einstein’s book for The New York Times Book Review, and there he points out that “a broader historical view can remind us that ad-supported media competes with paid media (like HBO, film, books).” But, despite Wu’s advice and historical depth, he, too, fails to grapple with the fact that ad-supported media has also competed with publically subsidized media, both historically and in other parts of the world. Early in the book, Wu indicated that newspapers before ads were only affordable to the wealthy, and suggests that advertising thus democratized them by subsidizing their production. While ads did bring newspapers to a broader public, before ads were common—between the founding of the republic and the mid-twentieth century—we did have a public subsidy: the postal subsidy. This program, which helped end slavery by supporting abolitionist newspapers, was hated by slave owners according to journalism scholars Robert McChesney and John Nichols, in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism. Wu points out that the post-office was also the first vehicle for commercial mailings (what we might call spam today), but that shouldn’t nullify the significance of historical precedent of a different paradigm in this country. Nichols and McChesney write that “While there were rollicking disagreements about the character and content of the post-colonial press in America, the one universally accepted premise was that the government needed to heavily subsidize the creation and development of the press if the constitutional system were to succeed”—an idea I believe is still prescient today.

Wu does acknowledge that a public option could be a “radical” antidote to advertising, albeit superficially, in a footnote. He comments that Google “may have outwitted the devil,” when he went down the road of online advertising, “but so do all Faustian characters.” (Ironically, Google was started by engineers who detested ads. Personalized, targeted, ads were supposed to make the problem better, not snowball into the intricate catastrophe these books describe.) It could have chosen to be a non-for-profit like Wikipedia, or it could have given its software to all of us, like Jonas Salk did with his polio vaccine. But, much like many other vaccines and medicines, search engines went the way of privatization, balancing the needs of the public with the demands of shareholders.

With fewer opportunities and everyone online, capitalism is adapting, as Wu suggests. Advertisers and other attention merchants, have offered a blueprint for success—hope in a grim neoliberal landscape. Wu explains how reality TV, for instance, not only saved the networks money, but offered something even better to the capitalist class: the promise of fame—escape from poverty—to millions. It justified a bullshit meritocracy by dangling the chance to live in group-houses full of cameras to anyone who longed for a brighter future. As capitalism evolved it harnessed Oprah-style TV and YouTube or Insta fame to do the same.

Insidiously building on network execs’ tricks, advertisers have even begun farming out work to fame-seekers to make money. Einstein cites GoPro, the affixable camera company, which asked users to submit “epic” videos shot with the camera for use in a YouTube series. GoPro posted the best videos on their channel, creating competition and excitement among their young users, eager to get “exposure.” This has become common practice—companies don’t even have to invest in tangible resources; instead they just hint at the possibility of fame, and presto.

Though both Wu and Einstein are quick to point out that advertising fuels the modern economy that is delivered by technology, discussions about the larger political implications of data-collection, too, are lackluster. Einstein focuses on you, the individual: “Who cares if you bought a book on Amazon, a bra at Macy’s or researched bicycles at REI? That’s not really the issue,” she writes. So what’s the issue?

What becomes problematic are the topics that are, frankly, no one else’s business. They tend to fall into three categories: health, wealth, and sexual preferences and proclivities. Think about it. Our privacy concerns boil down to this: we don’t want people to know our medical conditions, how much money we make, and who or how many people we might be sleeping with. But we don’t get to decide what information gets collected and what does not.

But the case for privacy isn’t about you or me, it is about all of us. Both Wu and Einstein fail to see that the same technologies that are used to track us online to sell stuff, aren’t just selling stuff: they’re criminalizing, and in some cases killing, people. It isn’t just attention that is being harvested now, but data too. Because when corporations control core organs of the state (like prisons or the military), they believe they are entitled to profit from everyone, and if you can’t afford to be a consumer, you become a criminal. 

By putting the terms of advertising within a framework of consumer choice, Wu and Einstein further obscure the people who don’t have choices.

Jacob Silverman describes this dynamic in his essay “What Machines Know: Surveillance Anxiety and Digitizing the World.” Here, Silverman shows how the same technology that tracks us as consumers is used to create profiles for law enforcement. The part of the story that is easily overlooked is that once someone is added to a watch list—even if they have a similar name or face (don’t forget facial recognition)—they are added to what are called “databases of suspicion.” Everything from unpaid court fees to a funny-sounding name can get you added to such a list. Sandra Bland, a black woman in Texas, died in a prison after a traffic stop. She was on a list like this as she was stopped many times and owed more fines “than she could ever pay,” according to Silverman.

Likewise, as Malkia Cyril pointed out in a piece for The Progressive, black people have always been under surveillance: “We need to understand that data has historically been overused to repress dissidence, monitor perceived criminality, and perpetually maintain an impoverished underclass.” This is nothing new, this has been constant since the days of slavery, Cyril says, but new technologies like predictive policing, police body-cameras, and license plate readers (all disproportionately deployed in communities of color) have exacerbated these overreaches. And as the case of Sandra Bland, it cannot be overstated that cops have become debt collectors with a license to kill. In “The Link Between Money and Aggressive Policing,” Eric Markowitz shows that many interactions between police and the policed are financial, as they are increasingly the ones who collect the fees and fines. And if you can’t pay, you’ll be locked up—or worse. By focussing on advertising and attention, Wu and Einstein divorce the more sinister sides of surveillance technologies. It isn’t just the companies eager to sell products who are eager for data and meta-data; so are the ones who profit from “law-enforcement” and military activities, as their stock prices skyrocket in Trump’s ballooning police state. 

Wu states in his introduction that “The real purpose of this book is less to persuade you one way or the other, but to get you to see the terms plainly, and, seeing them plainly, demand bargains that reflect the life you want to live.” What if the terms have been decided for you? And this basically sums up how these books fall short: By focusing on the attention of the consumer, the people who presumably can make spending decisions, rather than on those the neoliberal state wishes to consume, those who are surveilled at work or whose data makes it into the hands of police. By putting advertising within the framework of consumer choice, Wu and Einstein further obscure the people who don’t have choices. Because whether or not we sign up for Netflix subscriptions or take a weekend away from our phones (Wu’s proposal) or even break up big tech firms (Einstein’s), the runaway inequality, the militarized police, and workplace sensors won’t go away. Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement, and its policy proposals like ending mass surveillance, mass incarceration, and redistributing wealth, to name just a few, could go a longer way in fixing our online ad problem than paying for content or installing an adblocker ever will. These are the terms, plain and simple.