Writing histories of soft power – advertising, entertainment, persuasion, etc – has its difficulties. The historians of the hard variety of power can attach their arguments to a battle won, a piece of legislation passed, an election lost, something concrete where impact...
Writing histories of soft power – advertising, entertainment, persuasion, etc – has its difficulties. The historians of the hard variety of power can attach their arguments to a battle won, a piece of legislation passed, an election lost, something concrete where impact and significance seem clearer, more obvious. Yet the exercise of soft power is both commonplace and important because it often does shape our lives in a myriad of ways. But how do you prove such claims?
Well Tim Wu has done a masterful job of tracking the story of a changing group of people, mostly men, who have sort to harvest the attention of publics and then sell that attention to a bevy of clients, mostly advertisers of one kind or another. The overall story isn’t new: there have been many fine histories of advertising over the years, and of its effect on culture and consumers. But Wu adds to the chronicle by focusing much of his argument on the modern incarnation of the attention merchants, no longer just newspaper publishers or admen or broadcast moguls but the ones who run the massively popular websites, say a Mark Zuckerberg, that wins our attention by offering an appealing service, a lot of supposedly ‘free stuff.’ Except of course it isn’t quite free, or rather it produces a saleable product, our eyes, that can generate huge profits. And the success of such enterprise shapes the whole character of the internet, just like the fact of advertising shaped first newspapers, then radio, and finally television news and entertainment.
It’s the details of the story that especially intrigue. Thus I was taken by his bio of someone he calls the alchemist, Claude Hopkins, an adman early in the 20th century, whose successes and views had a major impact on the course of marketing throughout the next few decades. Wu has obviously done much research and thought hard about his findings. He writes well, very well indeed: the story flows easily, the arguments are clear, and his claims are always interesting, even if you might doubt his conclusions. So his suggestion a consumer revolt is brewing nowadays I liked, and hope he’s correct, but I doubt – there have been too many such claims in times past but we still live in marketing’s moment. Things change yes, styles of persuasion get updated, but the rule of the persuader persists: so the political consultant may have suffered some hard times in the past election cycle (because so many expensive campaigns failed abysmally), but the triumph of Trump (who doesn’t figure in the book) shows the huckster remains a potent figure in the American mix.
The characters I found most intriguing here, like Hopkins, weren’t just selling our attention but manufacturing attraction, making products or people or causes appealing to the various markets and publics. Because in part our attention to the free stuff doesn’t mean our submission to the wishes of the elites. There’s another step, namely the crafting of the brand or the cause, making something that captivates or, apparently, fills a need. In short the real exercise of soft power came through the efforts of the adman, although now more the ad-maker and public relations counsel, what’s been called the persuasion industry. Sometimes I had the feeling Wu’s approach emphasized attention too much, attraction too little.
But the real point is that Wu’s book provokes thought about a brand of soft power that is both ubiquitous and compelling. The only answer, unfortunately inadequate I think, is to get off the grid – don’t Facebook, don’t tweet, don’t watch television, then you can’t be sold. Except, of course, you then miss out on the free stuff.