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The Attention Merchants

The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

By Tim Wu
13-minute read
Audio available
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu

The Attention Merchants (2016) details the history of the fascinating field of advertising. These blinks will teach you all about the “attention industry,” offering a historical account of how advertising has arrived at its modern incarnation.

  • Entrepreneurs and aspiring businesspeople
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  • Tech industry employees, including programmers and developers

Tim Wu is a policy advocate, law professor at Columbia Law School and frequent contributor to NewYorker.com. He’s the author of The Master Switch and head of the Poliak Center at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York.

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The Attention Merchants

The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

By Tim Wu
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu
Synopsis

The Attention Merchants (2016) details the history of the fascinating field of advertising. These blinks will teach you all about the “attention industry,” offering a historical account of how advertising has arrived at its modern incarnation.

Key idea 1 of 8

Newspaper advertisements used to be strictly informational until one New York City paper changed the game forever.

Nowadays, if you look at a news source, whether online or in print, you’re just about certain to stumble upon a litany of advertisements. But this wasn’t always the case.

In fact, ads in the earliest newspapers, which date back to the start of the eighteenth century, were, for the most part, informational. They weren’t persuasive or loaded with gripping rhetoric; instead, they were simply there to impart facts. Much like the classifieds of today, they included vacancy notices, as well as a lost and found.

Then, in 1833, a young journalist and businessman named Benjamin Day changed everything. He set out to launch his own newspaper, called the New York Sun and, to reach a large audience, began selling each copy for just a penny. With rival papers like the New York Times, the Morning Courier and the New York Enquirer each selling for six cents per copy, Day’s paper was a much more affordable option.

However, selling a paper so cheaply was bound to generate a loss, as the cost of production would exceed the income from sales. To overcome this obstacle, Day invited businesses to place ads in his paper, charging them a fee for the exposure.

Within just a few months, the paper had become an enormous success, selling thousands of copies a day. By the end of the year, the advertisements were bringing in a massive surplus and, within two years, the paper was number one in New York City.

Day had shown, somewhat unintentionally, how a newspaper could be about more than just news; it could also do business and literally resell the attention of its audience.

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