Image of Lee McGuigan and his book cover for Selling the American People

First Books Series: Lee McGuigan (PhD '18), UNC Chapel Hill

March 29, 2024 5:00pm-7:00pm
  • Annenberg School for Communication, Room 500

"Selling the American People: Advertising, Optimization, and the Origins of Adtech"

The final Annenberg C3 First Books event for Spring 2024 will be a discussion with Lee McGuigan. 

Selling the American People: Advertising, Optimization, and the Origins of Adtech


Algorithms, data extraction, digital marketers monetizing "eyeballs": these all seem like such recent features of our lives. And yet, Lee McGuigan tells us in this eye-opening book, digital advertising was well underway before the widespread use of the Internet. Explaining how marketers have brandished the tools of automation and management science to exploit new profit opportunities, Selling the American People traces data-driven surveillance all the way back to the 1950s, when the computerization of the advertising business began to blend science, technology, and calculative cultures in an ideology of optimization. With that ideology came adtech, a major infrastructure of digital capitalism.

To help make sense of today's attention merchants and choice architects, McGuigan explores a few key questions: How did technical experts working at the intersection of data processing and management sciences come to command the center of gravity in the advertising and media industries? How did their ambition to remake marketing through mathematical optimization shape and reflect developments in digital technology? In short, where did adtech come from, and how did data-driven marketing come to mediate the daily encounters of people, products, and public spheres? His answers show how the advertising industry's efforts to bend information technologies toward its dream of efficiency and rational management helped to make "surveillance capitalism" one of the defining experiences of public life. Selling the American People: Advertising, Optimization, and the Origins of Adtech, is available for open-access download here.

About the Speaker

Lee McGuigan is an assistant professor in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. He studies the history and political economy of advertising, media and information technology.

McGuigan's scholarship has appeared in a variety of books and journals, including Big Data & Society, New Media & Society, the Journal of Law and Political Economy, Media, Culture, & Society, Critical Studies in Media Communication, the Journal of Consumer Culture, Media Industries, Communication, Culture, & Critique, and Television & New Media. He is also co-editor (with Vincent Manzerolle) of "The Audience Commodity in a Digital Age," published in 2014 by Peter Lang.

About the Series

First Books is an initiative of the Annenberg Center for Collaborative Communication (Annenberg C3) directed by Dean Sarah Banet-Weiser and co-hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and University of Southern California’s Annenberg Schools for Communication. The series invites some of the most exciting new scholars from across the field of media and communication to share their work with the Annenberg community while also offering insights about the challenges and rewards that come with first-time book authorship. First Books has three aims: to celebrate and champion first-time book authors; to introduce members of the Annenberg community to path-breaking new texts in the field; and to help demystify the craft of book-writing by creating a space for dialogue and exchange between new authors, early career scholars and graduate students. 

Equal parts seminar, book talk and launch party, First Books talks are open to all members of the Annenberg community: established authors, new authors and our many authors-to-be. 

This event is a part of the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC) and the Annenberg Center for Collaborative Communication (Annenberg C3) co-sponsored event series.

Disclaimer: This event may be photographed and/or video recorded for archival, educational, and related promotional purposes. We also may share these video recordings through Annenberg's website or related platforms. Certain events may also be livestreamed. By attending or participating in this event, you are giving your consent to be photographed and/or video recorded and you are waiving any and all claims regarding the use of your image by the Annenberg School for Communication. The Annenberg School for Communication, at its discretion, may provide a copy of the photos/footage upon written request.