“My Experience is What I Agree to Pay Attention to,” said psychologist William James. And therein lies the problem and danger of advertising: we don’t always agree or choose to pay attention, but it shapes our life experience irrevocably.
When we turn on the television, or leaf through the newspaper, every one of us enters into a knowing contract with advertisers – they will do their best to sell us something. According to Tim Wu, law professor at Columbia University and author of new book The Attention Merchants, the online world is markedly different – it runs away with that mutual understanding, stretches it to places and methods you would not sensibly consent to.
What makes us stick around, then? Wu believes it’s our love of free things. Facebook, Google, Amazon, eBay and many other platforms that have become the center of our social, business and retail lives don’t cost a thing to use, and allow us to do so much. But what are the costs of everything being free? In exchange for these privileges, companies and media organizations harvest our attention and sell it to advertisers. They are ‘the attention merchants’. That makes you the commodity.
Many of us revolt against ads – we use ad blockers, choose streaming over broadcast TV, listen to on-demand music rather than radio, and hack our way out of much-loathed YouTube commercial overtures. But there is subtle attention harvesting happening in ways we cannot see, and do not question. Our preferences and habits are being mined and that information used to sell products and ideas to us at an even deeper level. The high-competition for our attention results in ever-increasing misleading click-bait, flashing images, shorter content (anything to get us in and keep us there), and it actually changes us neurologically. We’ve lost our ability to deeply focus, to get into a flow state where profound work is made – that, in Wu’s eyes is a definite and serious cost.
But even more worrying is the way advertisements push and pull you toward decisions that could change the course of your life entirely. You may spend more money than planned and miss out on experiences you would have organically desired instead, like travel. You may vote for someone you previously wouldn’t have. Open to the influence of companies who know a lot about you, you may end up living a little differently that you wanted to – without even realizing it. This gets us to one of Wu’s big questions: since your mind and attention have become commodities, open to extensive and subtle influenced, are the decisions you’re making really yours? How much of your life is motivated by ideas and impulses disguised so that you feel they are authentically yours? Wu says we need to be diligent in removing ourselves from the attention marketplace regularly enough so that we can be sure we are living lives we can truly call our own.
Tim Wu’s most recent book is The Attention Merchants The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.
Want five or six extra days every year? Easy – choose streaming over network TV. Adults are sacrificing 130 hours, and kids 150 hours, to ads annually when they watch commercial programming.
Research released by entertainment news site Exstreamist in 2016 shows that kids skip 150 hours of commercials every year by watching content on streaming services instead of regular television. On average, “children between the ages of 2 and 18 are spending an average of 1.8 hours a day using streaming services," they report. That's about 6 days worth of time per year they're getting back from services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
How did commercials reach their 6-day toll on us? The answer, as the L.A. Times reports, lies with television networks. Using numbers from ratings measurement firm Nielsen, networks are shoving more commercials into programs in order to make up for declining ratings and revenue, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). In 2015, networks aired an average of 15 minutes and 38 seconds of commercials every hour.
For comparison, “in 2009, the broadcast networks averaged 13 minutes and 25 seconds of commercial time per hour. In 2013, that figure grew to 14 minutes and 15 seconds." Cable news isn't any better, since, “in 2009, cable networks averaged 14 minutes and 27 seconds per hour," according to the L.A. Times. Networks are using more 15-second ad spots than 30-second ad spots, and some networks are even speeding up their programming in order to air more commercials, reports WSJ.
Children's programming is even worse. “Children view more than 40,000 commercials each year," according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Those commercials are loaded with ads for “sugary cereal, rot-your-teeth soda" and many other products that aren't particularly helpful, Exstreamist explains. Cognitively speaking, children don't understand the difference between commercials and television programs. The APA explains that “children below the ages of 4–5 years do not consistently distinguish program from commercial content, even when program/commercial separation devices ("GoBots will be back after these messages") are used…. [and] most children younger than 7–8 years of age do not recognize the persuasive intent of commercial appeals." So children can't easily tell the difference between fiction and reality or that the commercials are trying to sell them something. Since commercials are designed to influence consumer behavior, that's a problem.
Commercials can also demonstrate negative behavior that kids copy — again, because of their cognitive faculties, but also because they like trying new things. In a recent study of over 12,000 children's commercials, researchers at the University of Hartford discovered that about 12 percent of commercials featured disturbing or violent behaviors like threats of physical violence or accidents. Only 20 percent of commercials featured positive behaviors like sharing or helping. It's difficult to tell what direct effect those actions have, but given the impressionability of children featuring those behaviors at all seems suspect. Read the study yourself in Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
Granted, advertisers self-regulate commercial content so it's developmentally appropriate, but still: there's a lot of commercials with questionable content and they're targeted toward people who don't understand that they're being targeted.
No wonder people are flocking to streaming services.
The next time your kid wants to watch a show, opt for streaming services instead of broadcast TV. You'll save their time — and your money. “A Netflix subscription ends up paying for itself hundreds of times over if it prevents a few of those expensive toy purchases," as Exstreamist points out. Win-win!