Does Advertising Really Ruin Everything?

adiasFor one Columbia University professor, the print magazine experience is the only sane model left.

Advertising, a once-small subset of our consumer life, has now taken over just about everything, according to Tim Wu, author of “The Attention Merchants.”

“I wanted to understand the history of advertising, because it didn’t simply always exist this way,” Wu explained in an interview with Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. “You typically would just pay for stuff, like newspapers or movies. The idea of selling a captive audience had to be invented.”

“And the normative question is: What are the costs of everything being free?” he asks. “Are we paying in other ways? There is a covenant that, in exchange for free stuff, we expose ourselves to advertising. But is that covenant broken?”

Given the rise of ad blocking, Wu feel it has. The writer and Columbia University professor who coined the term “net neutrality” believes that the phenomenon of modern advertising has turned brands into attention merchants, to the detriment of our culture.

“Newspapers were once a sleepy business,” Wu notes. “They often sold for a relatively high price. Then in the 1830s, this fellow Benjamin Day, his paper was the New York Sun, and he was perhaps the first true attention merchant. Day had a brilliant idea to dramatically reduce the price, amass a large readership, and convert his customers into a product, which he could sell to an advertiser. This insight spread across media to become the dominant form of selling the news.”

Somewhere along the line, Wu asserts, advertising took over religion “as the primary instructor of human deliverance,” and become the foremost influencer of our culture.

He has some ideas on how to regain control and save the Internet.

“We have to get over our addiction to free stuff. Suck it up and pay. A lot of people say, ‘I hate ads, I’m sick of ads, I’m sick of clickbait, I’m sick of this race to the bottom.’ If you say that, you have to put your money where your mouth is. We have to get over our addiction to free if we’re going to save the web. That’s us, the users. We can’t expect everything to be free and to be good.”

Some niche publishers are embracing this idea, charging higher prices for carefully created content. It’s worked, to an extent, for video content versus network to TV. The idea may have merit in the larger context.

“If I were in charge of the universe, I would say we need a new covenant—a new deal between advertisers and consumers, to make some times and places off limits,” Wu concludes. “Where we want to be is where many print magazines are right now. The ads are beautiful and often very interesting, but looking at them doesn’t ruin the magazine. That would be peace in our time.”

Amen, brother.