10/3/2017 – The Attention Merchants (beginning)

We begin this week reading Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants (Introduction and chapters 1-9). Please post your comment about this week’s reading here before 5pm on Tuesday, October 3rd.

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20 responses to “10/3/2017 – The Attention Merchants (beginning)

  1. In Chapter 1, Wu states: “Every time your attention is captured by a poster, your awareness, and perhaps something more, has been appropriated without your consent.” Say, however, we removed the bit that is negatively painted by Wu’s general criticism of the advertising industry — “by a poster.” What remains is the belief that anything that captures our attention is “appropriating” our awareness without our consent. Without including the negatively connoted “poster” to make using the term “appropriation” more acceptable, “anything” could be any external stimulus, positive or negative. Would we so easily call it “appropriation” if our attention were captured by a beautiful fig? Probably not. This fig, however, shares all the attention-triggering properties of a poster — it appeals to our perceptual preferences as well as our subconscious sexual desires. Similarly, we did not consent to pay attention to this fig; our response could have been merely behavioral and not caused by deliberate intent, agency, or conscious choice. Ultimately, however, our interaction with the fig could have proven to be beneficial; awareness of possible options of nourishment can be vital, especially during times of food insecurity. Herein lies the silver lining of attention “appropriation”; just as Wu himself explains later on how advertising can provide information about choice despite its apparent invasiveness, so too can this fig, albeit uncalled for, provide us with important information. In this light, we can see how dangerous using the word “appropriation” can be in describing the relationship between people and advertising. Using such a pessimistic word belies the potential benefits and inherent complexity of this relationship and depicts it in a vastly simplistic and negative light. Ultimately, Wu might have been better served using more tempered diction to keep his readers’ outlook more objective and given to rational scrutiny.

  2. Caroline Cin-kay Ho

    In this week’s reading, I was especially intrigued by Wu’s discussion of advertising’s roots in religion. However, though I found his claim that “organized religion had long taken human attention as its essential substrate” (26) to be quite powerful, I believe that some of the examples he provided could be strengthened to heighten the comparison (though not all his examples – his discussion of preaching and propagating the faith as the original meaning of “propaganda” (39) in particular is quite compelling given the various mentions of ex-preachers/religious types in advertising, like MacManus and Hopkins). Wu points to a variety of religious practices designed to capture one’s attention, from “a ceaseless vigil of prayer” to brachot (26), but these are as far from advertising as could be – rather than “appropriating” one’s attention without their consent (as in advertising), these practices appear to require a high level of focus and diligence, not to mention conscious consent and deliberate intent. I doubt a casual practitioner of religion could easily – let alone unconsciously – fix their mind on God immediately upon waking! A stronger tie between religion and advertising might instead lie in certain religious art which appropriates attention (not unlike the posters in Paris), such as the colorful and often violent imagery of the Stations of the Cross in churches. As a child growing up Catholic, I was simultaneously terrified of and drawn in by such art; much like advertisements, the vividness of the art compelled me to look at it despite my discomfort. As this art is explicitly grabbing one’s attention rather than merely asking for one’s conscious focus, it serves as a closer parallel to modern advertising than the meditative practices Wu mentions do.

  3. One of the most interesting stories Wu brought up in this week’s reading was the feud between NBC and CBS, Sarnoff and Paley. Living in the middle of a place full of tech firms, most of which are “attention merchants,” I found many of Wu’s descriptions poignant. Sarnoff headed the nation’s broadcasting giant, itself intended “as a means of selling radio sets” (98); Sarnoff was a “poet of technology” and “loved…building empire,” but “never seemed…to fully grasp…NBC’s true mission as an attention merchant.” (99) On the other hand, Paley knew how to pick talent, intuitively understood how to optimize radio programming, but “had no feel for technology.” (100)

    Between the two, Paley better fits the role of the cliche hero of Silicon Valley. Young, privileged, his business characterized by rapid growth and scaling, dependent on strong connections with business partners to make up for a lack of leadership and vision in developing the technology itself. Cast as Paley’s foil, Sarnoff and NBC become a caricature of “Old Tech” – an old empire (usually with hardware somewhere in its backbone) relying on its scale to overwhelm opponents and maintain dominance.

    By doing this, intentionally or not, Wu draws a parallel between these attention merchants of the 30s and the attention merchants of today. The tools have changed and the scale is grander, but the same strategies still hold true. Those who have the most influence on the technology itself are successful: your ISPs, your IBMs, your Ciscos. Those who have committed themselves to the art of manipulating attention have become, and will remain, the most successful. The very best have a firm grasp on both.

  4. Bradley Richard Knox

    In Chapters 3 and 4 of The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu outlines what I believe to be the most crucial time in the development of propaganda and advertising as a truly mainstream aspect of Western society. Wu states that “only the disconnected…are truly immune to propaganda” (48), and during this time of war, and eventually the growth of business advertising, this claim would be put to the test. Beginning in the UK during WWI, and eventually spreading to the U.S., Wu shows how federal governments were able to use certain propaganda techniques to convince men to enlist and gain popular support for the war (“war-will”). Both of these campaigns were successful in accomplishing their goals of mobilizing entire populations of people to act in certain ways, and in doing so inspired a whole new advertising business based on the techniques used by the federal governments.
    After seeing what the government was able to do in influencing popular support for the war, huge firms were established to “[buy] what attention was for sale” (53). Although the advertising movement was slightly different than the pro-war propaganda used by the government, the same general principles applied. They both targeted a specific group of people, with business advertising being directed at women and war propaganda targeted at young men. Most importantly though, they both established the precedent that if you wanted to get your message across, only all-out mass advertising campaigns would suffice, and if you did not subscribe to this way of business then your company would be left in the dust. Until the war, the power of advertising had not been recognized, but now that it had been unleashed to a full extent the business world would never be the same again.

  5. This book has, so far, traced the history of buying and selling attention, starting at the newspaper and moving to the radio. It is a history that is not widely discussed and that I had seldom heard of, except for in the television series Mad Men, which represented only a very narrow, glamorous window of advertising history. I had no idea the impact Claude Hopkins, a former preacher, had on the birth of the modern ad.

    What’s more, this connection between religion and advertisements was something I had never considered before, but the parallels are so surprisingly uncanny. Even the word “propaganda,” as Wu mentions, is derived from the idea of “propagating the Christian faith.” During the 20th century, advertisements and propaganda became the new voices to follow. These forces were able to do everything from increasing the enlistment of armies to selling sham patent medicines to the masses.

    To me, ads feel innately tacky, selling goods that are not worth their salt and convincing people to behave in ways that are less than rational. So, it surprised me that people who created these ads or propaganda were so highly revered in their societies at times, that a job that is more or less like a door-to-door salesman was so highly regarded.

    What also surprised me was the ad industry “revelation” that women make up a large part of consumerism. I found it really funny that no man in the industry could figure out how to sell a product until they employed a woman. Men were just that out of touch with needs and desires of women. I was at odds with the story of Lucky Strike promoting women to smoke outside. In one sense, yes it was liberating women, but on the other hand, it was promoting a specific product that, as we now know, causes lung cancer.

  6. Divya Siddarth

    Wu’s analysis of attention merchants covers, on a large scale, the acceptance of advertising and attention capture into our everyday lives, as previously sacred spaces (from the ‘family living room’ via radio, to schools) are taken over by advertising. An interesting thread that snakes through this analysis is that of the question of choice, and what it means to have freedom of choice in a world of advertising. In other words, what is the line between advertising and propaganda? Or, at what point can we say advertising has gone too far? In this vein, Wu chronicles several ‘revolts’ in the space – the rise and fall of ‘snake oil salesmen’ through patent medicine, eventually laid low by exposure of their claims as false and spurious, or the campaign against the Paris poster craze, once touted as art but eventually reviled by the public. It seems as though these revolts are germinated by moments in which the public, or some portion of it, feels taken advantage of or misused, as though some portion of choice has been stolen from them. Chase and Schlink, in the 1920s, write concernedly that “Consumers…buy not what they freely want, but what they are made to want” (74). Here, the criticism is that advertising serves to stifle the market’s integrity by “manufacturing demand for needless products” (74). However, Wu also details the opposing view, which states that advertising, in its presentation of different options to the consumer and its ability to promote comparisons between these options, is actually a tool of increased market freedom. The fine line between these two perspectives is I think one of the most interesting and fraught questions in the first few chapters of this book, a concept I hope to explore further in future chapters.

  7. Julia Thompson

    In The Attention Merchants, Wu tracks developments in the commodity of attention. Of interest is the treatment of attention merchants by government. At first, attention merchants tended toward success, with prominent newspapers in New York basing their business models on advertising to lower the cost of the paper, and posters in Paris were positively regarded. However, “industries, unlike organisms, have no organic limits on their own growth” (22). Advertising that was acceptable to the public became a nuisance, and, in Paris, regulations were created to limit it. Similarly, advertising in the United States for patent medicine was widespread and exaggerated around 1900. Following revelations of dangerous ingredients and negative consequences caused by patent medicine, the Food and Drugs Act in 1906 imposed restrictions on the industry’s false advertising. Following the rise of advertising, governments inserted themselves into the attention merchants’ business as a mediator between the desires of advertisers and consumers.
    Government as a regulator of attention merchants proved dangerous starting during the First World War. To arouse patriotism in citizens, governments became attention merchants. Britain began a “government-run mass recruiting campaign” (38) to secure the military size needed to defeat Germany. The campaign’s success was a model to other countries desiring influence over their citizens’ attention. In 1917, the United States began a propaganda campaign to attract support for entering the war. Two decades later, state attention merchants were wildly successful in Nazi Germany, and the government used its power to regulate communications technology to compel citizens to listen to programming hand-picked by Joseph Goebbels to create “a single mass consciousness” (109). Such tactics enabled the effectiveness of Nazi rule and were emulated by other authoritarian regimes, including the Soviet Union. Governments held the roles of the merchant and the mediator simultaneously, impacting freedom of information.

  8. Fake News is Old News

    What has recently been called the “crisis of fake news” turns out to be as historical a phenomenon as the penny newspaper itself. This recent election spotlighted Facebook and Twitter’s roles in promoting disinformation, spurring public outcry and condemnation of the social media platforms’ seeming inability to address the problem. Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants artfully traces the roots of the fake news, and points to an insight many of us lost sight of amidst the newness of social media – one that predates the advent of the Internet: that the business model of media platforms can incentivize salaciousness over truth.

    Wu begins with the story of the 1830s penny newspapers of New York City. In the classic newspaper business model, the newspaper – its information, its stories, its reporting – was the product. In the new business model, pioneered by Benjamin Day, the readership was the product. This meant that advertisers were the customer, and the more outrageous the headlines, the more readers there were, and the more ads were bought. Social media platforms’ business model follows a similar logic.

    The difference nowadays it is illegal for newspapers to publish libel (as the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)). Social media however, under section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, are not held responsible for the veracity of information published on the platforms (similar to a telephone company – AT&T, for example, is not at fault if someone conspires to commit a crime over their telephone line).

    Wu’s timely telling of the history of fake news begs the questions: is Mark Zuckerberg the 2010s Benjamin Day? If so, how might regulations be updated to adapt to social media’s growing role in news media?

  9. Alexandra Marie Gill

    In the end of Ch. 1, Wu describes the recurring phenomenon of “the revolt” against the attention industry: the major and minor forms of backlash that occur when attention harvesting has grown too large and gotten out of hand. While Wu brought up this phenomenon with regard to Chéret’s Parisian posters, I found myself seeing the same patterns occur today with regard to internet and television advertisements.

    I think it is safe to say that many of us today have at the very least felt the “disenchantment effect” of advertisements on websites and on TVs. Personally, whenever I watch a television show live, I purposely distract myself during commercial breaks with my phone or computer because I hate commercials so much. Moreover, I usually avoid watching live TV all together, purposely waiting hours or even days until I can watch a recorded version to fast forward through the commercials. Similarly, I utilize ad blockers on my browser and avoid websites like Forbes, which I know ban the use of ad blockers.

    I am curious as to whether our transition from the tendency to ignore advertisements (leaving the room during commercial breaks) to the active avoidance of advertisements (television recordings and ad blockers) signifies shift toward the “major” revolts that Wu describes. For example, a significant portion of Netflix’s recent success stems from the ability to binge-watch television shows without dealing with advertisements. Is this the start of a revolt against television advertisements? We’ll know if that’s true if cable television is forced to adopt the approaches of Netflix and HBO and reduce commercial time to appease the public. However, it is certainly hard to imagine a world where the three-minute commercial break becomes obsolete, particularly for sports broadcasting where viewers almost exclusively watch live. It seems only time will tell.

  10. Santosh Kumaran Murugan

    In the first nine chapters, Tim Wu’s argumentation follows a clearly delineated pattern: introduce an invention/inventor, describe its effects on the target population, and describe its contribution towards future advertising campaigns. The second step appears more nuanced to me than is initially covered in the book – for, based on the given examples, these reactionary effects only appear to be at either extreme. In the case of Listerine, the public’s reaction is overwhelmingly positive. (“A masterpiece of demand engineering” p.55) Conversely, at the end of the Lucky Strike era, the aggregate public reaction is stated to be exceedingly negative.

    However, it is logical that within the aggregate public lie two (albeit, potentially blurred) subsets of consumers: a vocal section which responds with higher volatility to ad campaigns and may disproportionately skew measurable public sentiment, and a quieter constituency which responds with relative indifference to specific advertising campaigns.

    I do not claim that Wu failed entirely to consider this distinction. To his credit, Wu attempts to distinguish between men and women (“‘Women as a whole are more suggestible than men.'” – p.60); although his analysis remains mostly at the aggregate level. From his historical perspective, claims about the aggregate (e.g. advertising expenditures per household) may help to paint a more seamless picture of the evolution of the advertisement industry – rather than bogging down readers with a painstaking market segmentation problem.

    In a book about advertising, however, it seems relevant that readers understand, on a deeper level than is presented, from whom these different reactions stem from. (“‘If you can put a number on it’, Nielsen was said to say, ‘then you know something'”; p. 105). Otherwise, readers risk collectively missing a more subtle driver behind the evolution of advertising. With luck, Tim will address this point in the coming chapters.

    • Santosh Kumaran Murugan

      Replace “To his credit,” with “On this point.” The book’s quote is (clearly) not indicative of my personal opinion.

  11. sandipsrinivas1

    In Chapter 1, Wu chronicles the rise of tabloid journalism and fake news. Throughout his chronicle of the competition between Benjamin Day and James Bennett (along with their respective publications), Wu circles back to the idea of those competing for the attention of the many constantly going lower in order to compete. This is what he describes as the a natural “run to the bottom: attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative” (16). Despite the clear lowering of journalistic standards and ethics, these attention merchants are successful in their captivation of the public. In Chapter 2, Wu shifts his attention to pharmaceutical pseudoscience, discussing brands such as “Snake Oil” that capitalized on public naivety to become popular. In many ways, these two situations are analogous–just as tabloid journalists tried to craft the most outrageous story possible, vendors such as Claude Hopkins attempted to build brands surrounding their magical elixirs that were often predicated on outrageous stories and theories of their own.
    However, the two narratives conclude in very different terms. Wu portrays the journalists as being successful, reaching large readership numbers and looking poised for success. On the other hand, Wu includes the story of Samuel Hopkins Adams, a journalist who exposed the fraud rampant in the Snake Oil family of products.
    The juxtaposition of these two stories made me think about when, exactly, the public stands up against cheap attention grabbing techniques. With so much of Wu’s focus being thus far on the merchants’ methods in getting the attention of the masses, it’s interesting thinking about the other side, namely how the masses know when they’re being duped. Especially with fake news and pseudoscience being two issues relevant to our current society, I am curious as to learning more about when people revolt and what the impetus of those actions is.

  12. I found by far the most fascinating story/lesson from the first nine chapters of Wu the marketing innovations of Claude Hopkins in chapter 2. Hopkins’ ability to turn Dr Shoop from a small organisation to one “post[ing] more than 400,000 pamphlets […] every day” suggests a remarkable drive and a belief that more targeted, intelligent marketing could have a transformative impact on the businesses he touched.

    Moreover, what interested me disproportionately about Hopkins is that he realised rapidly that advertising needed to embody more than a static appeal; it had to be reactive and dynamic in its understanding of customer sentiment and how an advertisement might play to that. Hence, Hopkins moved from advertising for the original miracle cure industry to slogans such as: “We wish to state at the start that we are not patent medicine men, and their methods will not be employed by us…. Liquozone is too important a product for quackery.”

    In my opinion, customer responsiveness, more than the demand engineering, branding, or user-targeting highlighted in chapter 4, explained what made Hopkins’ advertising – and the advertising industry as a whole – persist, even as preferences and overarching societal attitudes changed. For example, Liquozone and other medicines ultimately burst in a ‘quack bubble’, but even the new era of drug regulation that followed did little (at least in my estimation) to slow the legacy of advertisements: as Wu points out, homeopathic treatments with no demonstrated efficacy beyond placebo are still sold to wild success across the world. Modern homeopathy utilises messages of distrust in mainstream medicine and ‘untestable’ benefits, given customers are aware of labelling clearly indicating no ‘conventional’ medical advantage to a drug.

    This same frame of responding and adapting to consumer desires helped anchor my understanding of Kitchener (who sought to adopt a uniquely compelling message in the specific circumstances of the war).

    • Brief follow-up (sorry, not sure how to edit a comment here): If one accepts my premise that modern advertising’s lynchpin is adaptability – that is, finding ways to appeal to consumers even in the presence of regulations or social norms that disincentivise previous advertising techniques – it is unclear to me that regulation could meaningfully slow the tide of modern advertising (since advertisers can always find a regulatory or social grey area to work with).

  13. Surya Narayanan

    As the GDP per capita increases exponentially and marketing makes goods available at an exponential rate, we examine now whether our culture has allowed us to think about closed looped relationships between consumers and consumed products or better, open loop interpretations of public denouncements of rival products in a company’s advertising. The television allowed for a new form of dynamic advertising but one size fits all solutions to people’s want for an answer to why demand is endless, never ceases to appeal to our satisfaction. “We can usefully think of the mass-produced poster as an early screen—though a static version, to be sure—the phenomenon now so ubiquitous in our lives. [Wu, 2016] Beyond propaganda and disenchantment and even steve jobsesque “consumers are and need to be told what to think” sort of attitude, I strongly believe that a conscience or a conscientious consciousness has no affliction and is simply led in a direction it chooses to want to align with.“For all our secular rationalism and technological advances, … the charms of magical thinking remains embedded in the human psyche, awaiting only the advertiser to awaken it.” [Wu] The how, where, why and what for, is the brilliance of advertising. Marketing is akin to keeping troops hungry before war, allowing users to think of how they’d react to their lives if they knew what their purpose was, is akin to thinking of how technology affects our quality of life. Reactions have made our emotions into pastiche commodities, 2 sadness = 1 angry + 1.5 embarassed ^ 0.5 surprise or something of the sort. War has left us ravaged in our ability to value peaceful times and robots and amish might have to marry one day.

    Thinking of social media is like asking someone how their trip to boston was, expecting them to tell you anything but the best or worst moments of their experience. Like apart from the apex of their climax, their memories would have been normalized and the journey reduced to another faction of their existence in the quest for survivalist instinct. We thank Wu for exposing quack men but we forgive Wu for reminding us, it is we who wanted to be fooled, for truth was too haughty of a pursuit. The vox populi shall always remain, post snowden, like rings on a tree trunk, telling us of how time has passed and how much. We humans will one day become amphibians and that day, the singularity will have become a thing of the past, a phenomenon to be celebrated by the 2% of those who wanted it, and an eventuality for all those who didnt expect it.

  14. Wu highlights the rise of the Parisian poster movement, peaking in the 1860s, to its imminent fall when the “attention harvesting, taken too far” advertising “engendered a vehement social reaction” (22) objecting against the presence of posters. Wu attributes this to what he coins as “the disenchantment effect”, or “what happens when a once entrancing means of harvesting attention starts to lose its charm.” (23)

    Interestingly enough, disenchantment in philosophy and sociology refers especially to the way in which the scientific ideals of the Enlightenment had minimized the impact of religion and the church on society as a whole; the original German word, Entzauberung, translates to “de-magic-ation”, according to the Encylopaedia Brittanica. Applied to the realm of marketing, it would imply a process of gaining a consciousness to the more subversive tactics of advertising – that is, over time, the vibrant posters of Parisian streets lose their “magic” due to public’s developed ability to look past the lively graphics and depictions.
    Wu suggests that this effect compels advertisers to always trend “in the direction of going too far…causing shock,” (23) to overcome our adaptation to this stimuli. This may be covered in later chapters, but if this is to be true, I wonder why advertisers decide to over-stimulate and give rise to continuous cycles of disenchantment rather than doing the opposite. A subversive effect seen increasingly in modern advertising seems to be under-stimulating the consumer: providing just enough information to pique interest and leave them craving more information (or perhaps try the product). Drawing parallels with religion again, we can see that this under-stimulation tactic has worked effectively with secretive groups and cults, such as Scientology, where the believer begins by knowing very little, finding out more about the organization at each level until they commit wholly to going “Clear”.

  15. Meg Verity Elli Saunders

    In regard to the fundamentals of attention harvesting, Wu states “under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.” (16) However, on the flip side of this, Wu warns that that it can, “when taken too far, engender a vehement social reaction…when audiences begin to believe that they are being ill-used – whether overloaded, fooled, tricked, or purposefully manipulated – the reaction can be severe.” (22-23) This highlights one of the main reasons why the act of commanding the attention of the masses, with intended the result of ensuing financial success, is so challenging: one’s display must be sufficiently unique and captivating to attract, and hold the attention of potential consumers; at the same time, if it appears to be overly controversial, or reveals itself to be in genuine, or deceiving, any attention that is attained can quickly turn unfavourable.
    As an example, Wu later refers to the charismatic Clark Stanley’s highly lucrative “Snake Oil” business, which eventually is revealed to be fraudulent. He describes how, as a result, “the industry collapsed of its own weight.”
    I wonder if this principle can help explain the popularity and unpopularity of certain advertisements today, when it seems that cynicism towards adverts is more prevalent now than ever before. One relatively recent TV commercial that managed to capture the hearts and minds of viewers was the John Lewis “Man on the Moon” Christmas commercial, which was the most viewed commercial of 2015. It depicts a young child determined to send a Christmas present to the man she sees living all alone on the moon. Perhaps the success of this commercial is due to its apparent innocence and genuineness: the fact that it does not make any unrealistic promises, but simply tells an emotive story might be what makes it so appealing to an audience that is so wary of being manipulated.

  16. In the Attention Merchants, Wu covers the implications of attention as a commodity. Interestingly, the nature of our human condition forces us to attend to something at any given point in time. In that respect, how we spend our attention defines the quality of our lives. In other words, what attention merchants decide to guide us to become our realities. In many ways, the attention economy seems to be evil as it strips away our individual thinking power. However, it can be interesting to try to define boundaries with regards to what is morally right to attend to or evaluate the utility of different attention “grabbing” dynamics. Information is to be processed and at what point does it become forced or detrimental. Is the cure to cut ourselves from it or to strengthen our ability to become aware of those triggers deeply ingrained in our biological machinery. Also, even without technologies bombarding us with ideas and belief systems, to what extent are we free to attend to something? Is what we attend to who we are or are we by default always going to be to some extent the result of a sort of collective psyche. I hope to continue exploring the intricacies of what attention itself means, and how it defines who we are.

  17. Perhaps the most important takeaway Wu wishes to convey in the first several chapters is the societal recognition of the power of information to have an impact on the masses. While he goes through a variety of methods that gradually come in to play to convey various messages and advertisements, the recurring exposure to information to capture long term attention, be that voluntary or involuntary, was the significant breakthrough. This seems to explain why he goes through several examples of various advertising and propaganda.

    Coupled with this acknowledgment of the power of information to captivate the relevant audience, he shows that even the early newspapers recognize that “attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative” of the available information (16). This concept relates directly the widespread belief that much of President Trump’s campaign tactics were focused on the low-hanging fruit.

    This information becomes dangerous as the underlying message becomes inscrutable. As Walter Lippman states, much of the media contains “forms of persuasion we cannot verify” (47). Even more, as advertisers such as Theodore McManus assumes the persuasion that “all men are fools,” Wu emphasizes how the public mind is able to manipulated (58). Moreover, Wu appears to discuss his examples in order to convey how the thin line between truth and falsity has a massive impact on public perception of messages. As with the most recent presidential election, the truth was only to be seen under layers of nuances. In Wu’s last three in this portion, he explains the power of widely distributed media to the masses and the power of joint attention to reinforce the significance of these concepts. His explanation of Hitler aiming to achieve “the intimate joint attention of millions” is a reminder of the power of manipulation by harnessing attention (116).

  18. As I am commenting after our second class, I write from the privileged position of having listened to a number of thoughtful discussions covering various aspects of our reading various aspects. What especially interests me is the intersection of belief cultivation and propagandizing, especially as it pertains to the centralized power of the institution trying to peddle whatever it is they are attempting to sell. Wu makes note that for a long time, the Catholic Church existed as essentially the sole seller of attention, especially when considering that up until really the Enlightenment church and state were inextricably woven into one another. Wu mentions that much of this selling of religion depended on the notion of absolute attention to God manifested in the form of prayer (26), which can be thought of as mantra that enforces attention towards the subject of the mantra at hand. These “prayers” or mantras appear over and over in Wu’s accounts of the various advertising techniques employed by companies pushing a product, taking on the form of slogan. Sloganeering as mantra, in one occurrence, is mastered by Lucky Strike with their easily digestible catchphrase “It’s toasted.” The common consumer would not even be expected to know what “It’s Toasted” necessarily means — that some special secret process makes Lucky Strike cigarettes better — but rather “It’s Toasted” serves as an easily digestible call to attention that Lucky Strike cigarettes exist and can be bought. This mantra is not all together dissimilar from rubbing prayer beads to point to the existence and protective qualities of The Virgin Mother Mary. I do not intend to moralize on whether or not the mantras in question are good or bad. They simply allow for a simple activity to act as a call to attention. This mantra making is extremely well-parodied in the satirical film Idiocracy, directed by Mike Judge, in which a severely dumbed down populace mimes the slogan of fictional energy drink Brawndo: “It’s got electrolytes.” When pressed on what electrolytes actually are, not a soul in this future dystopia is able to provide a response beyond restating the slogan. These pithy slogans are able to cultivate a kind of belief that is not dependent on the truth value of what they claim, but rather on the slogan’s ability to remind the consumer what is being sold.

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