Two overarching themes of the history stuck out to me. One is that the early “attention merchants” tended to view women as suggestible and weak-willed, more susceptible to advertising than men.
The other was the incredible uncontested power that the mass media had through the mid-60s to shape opinion and impose conformity -- and the corporate co-opting of the revolt that ensued. Wu notes that, by sponsoring Amos 'n' Andy, in 1929 Pepsodent was able to reach the equivalent of today’s Super Bowl audience -- every night. It’s worth noting that Amos ‘n’ Andy was a blackface comedy, and was criticized by African-Americans at the time as racist stereotyping, but was mainstreamed into the culture to a degree that would be impossible today.
When a counterculture arose in the 1960s, Wu notes, advertisers were, to the surprise of their critics, able to monetize counterculture just as well as they did the monoculture of the earlier decades. “what had been uncorked was powerful individual desires and the will to express them,” Wu writes. “Above all, most simply wanted to feel more like an individual, and that was the desire industry could cater to, just like any other.”
In Wu’s eyes, that era represents, basically, a political-cultural wrong turn, a missed opportunity that we now have to backtrack and get right.
I’m not so sure that’s an option. But it’s interesting to me that so many elements of the previous monoculture have featured in my life as part of the cultural landscape, so ingrained that it would be weird merely to question their existence -- even though I was born roughly a full generation after the monoculture ended.
For example: A Charlie Brown Christmas. I’ve actually never seen it, but it’s unthinkable that someone my age wouldn’t be aware of it. Sponsored by Coca-Cola, it aired on CBS in 1965 and has been re-aired every year since. Three generations now have had it become part of their lives, thanks to Coke.
Another example: The Flintstones aired for only six seasons, and the Jetsons only for three. Yet, because they debuted at a time when broadcast television was utterly dominant, they’ve had a tremendously disproportionate cultural impact. I and my friends grew up with Flintstones push-pops a general familiarity with both shows, even though they’d ended when our parents were kids. Nothing today has that kind of staying power.
In Wu’s reckoning, our ability to control our attention only got worse after the late ‘60s/70s counterculture failed to weaken advertisers’ grasp on media. Cable TV: “faced with a new abundance of choice and a frictionless system of choosing, we individuals, in our natural weak mindedness, could not resist frittering away our attention, which once had been harvested from us so ceremoniously.”
Social media, in his view, is an intensification of the trend toward greater control by “attention merchants.” He argues that social media is effectively conspiring against us in that apps target, as a key metric, the amount of our time they take up, and try to maximize it.
Interestingly, Wu sees the advent of streaming as a potential relief from the trend toward greater commodification of attention. He argues that, for instance, HBO rewards viewers’ attention, rather than abusing it, by asking them to watch, commercial-free, immersive shows like Game of Thrones.
At some points, Wu sounds like Ross Douthat. For instance, when he identifies Oprah, an attention merchant par excellence, as a religious figure: She “adopted an increasingly spiritual tone promoting itself as a place for public confession of sin, the witnessing of suffering, and promising audiences redemption in this life. In short, Winfrey began borrowing heavily from the most successful methods of organized religion, feeding a hunger for spiritual fulfillment in her core demographic“
Or, when he says that Trump is in it more for attention than for power: “If politicians have been accused of seeking attention for the sake of politics, Trump has been the practice of politics for the sake of attention.”
Other notes from my copy:
— Lucky Strikes promoted as “torches of freedom” for women
— video games were outgrossing films as early as the early ‘80s
— Steve Case on the first banner ad placed on AOL: “what really bothers me is the ads are in a place the members will see them"