This is Your Brain on Ads | Hidden Brain How many ads have you encountered today? On this week's radio replay, we discuss the insidiousness of advertising in American media.

Radio Replay: This Is Your Brain On Ads

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. And I'm Shankar Vedantam reporting...


VEDANTAM: ...From your school cafeteria.


VEDANTAM: OK - not really. But play along with me for a second and picture a typical scene at an elementary school lunchroom. There are kids holding trays with tater tots and turkey sandwiches. The milk is in those little cardboard cartons. There are long tables that serve not just as a place to sit but as a kind of marketplace.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Hey. I'll trade you two cookies for a bag of potato chips.

VEDANTAM: One young businessman tries to score a deal while trying not to get ripped off.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: No, that's a bad trade.

VEDANTAM: Of course, if you want either one of these deals, you have to trade stuff that others want.

ESTHER BLYE: I was so bummed that I couldn't have anything to trade because no one wants, you know, like, a clementine.

VEDANTAM: This is Esther.

BLYE: Hi. I'm Esther Blye (ph).

VEDANTAM: Esther's long since graduated from her elementary school cafeteria days. She's now a junior at Brandeis University.

BLYE: An English major, film minor.

VEDANTAM: She grew up with a mom who kept her kitchen free from food coloring and high fructose corn syrup. Esther's lunchbox was subject to the same rules about healthy food.

BLYE: So I would have snap peas. I would have an orange. Sometimes it would be leftovers and one maybe, like, gummy snack. But it would only be, like, health gummy.

VEDANTAM: Of course, Esther craved the processed snacks and cereals that her classmates were eating. Television commercials fueled her desire. One of her favorites was for Trix yogurt.

BLYE: It's black and white.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Character) Hey, a package from home.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Whoa, Trix Yogurt.

BLYE: Trix Rabbit is inside this costume.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Trix Rabbit) Time to put on a happy face. When you've got Trix Yogurt...

BLYE: And he starts describing all the wonderful fruits that, you know, aren't real. But they act like they're real.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Trix Rabbit) Strawberry banana bash, raspberry rainbow - uh-oh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Character) It's the rabbit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Character) Silly rabbit - Trix are for kids.

BLYE: As the kids take a bite, they start to turn to color. And at the very end, everything's, like, technicolor.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Trix Rabbit) Brings color to your world.

BLYE: I actually really liked "Wizard Of Oz" growing up. So I think subconsciously the black-and-white ad that then turns to color would sort of stick with me because I just kept watching "Wizard Of Oz" over and over and over as a child.

VEDANTAM: Now, Trix yogurt, of course, was banned from the Blye family fridge because it had artificial flavors and food colorings. But at breakfast time, Esther says her mom allowed her one solitary sugary exception.

BLYE: So I wasn't encouraged to have sugary cereals unless possibly her or my father had had them growing up. So it's kind of that nostalgic allowance.


VEDANTAM: A nostalgia allowance. Today on HIDDEN BRAIN, we look at this idea. Why do many of us have a soft spot for products that we enjoyed in childhood?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Snap, singing) Snap.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Crackle, singing) Crackle.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Pop, singing) Pop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Rice Krispies.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Tony the Tiger) They're great.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: Chocolatey, tasty Cookie Crisp.


LARRY KENNEY: (As Sonny the Cuckoo Bird) That's Cocoa Puffs. Yahoo. I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Cookie Crisp.


ALAN REED: (As Fred Flintstone) Barney, my Pebbles.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Lucky Charms.

ARTHUR ANDERSON: (As Lucky the Leprechaun) They're magically delicious.

VEDANTAM: Esther's parents let her have Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms for breakfast because they ate Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms for breakfast when they were kids.

MERRIE BRUCKS: If you think about it, parents love to have their kids experience the same wonderful things that they did.

VEDANTAM: This is professor Merrie Brucks.

BRUCKS: I work at the Eller College of Management.

VEDANTAM: At the University the of Arizona.

BRUCKS: And I'm interested in the psychology of advertising effects.

VEDANTAM: Merrie says it isn't just the taste and smell of sugary cereals that cement memories in our minds. It's the advertising that sells those products. For a 6- or 7-year-old, commercials with fun mascots like Lucky the Leprechaun and Tony the Tiger can be really powerful.

BRUCKS: Children are vulnerable to messages that are fun and sound good and you can sing and they have fun characters because their minds are so open to all of you that. They're open to everything.

VEDANTAM: Small children are not skeptical. They don't listen to commercials with cute rabbits and think, a multibillion-dollar company is trying to influence me. Of course, at a certain point, this changes, and kids start to think of commercials as commercials.

Presumably, you have some ideas on when the window opens and closes in terms of, you know, our vulnerability or impressionability. What does that window look like?

BRUCKS: The research says - and I'm not sure I believe it - that the vulnerability ends around 13 in terms of your cognitive ability, meaning children's understanding of what advertising is and how it works and that they should not be open to it - you should be thinking critically. And they're able to, at the same time they're hearing it, question it.

VEDANTAM: Here's the interesting question - what happens to those messages that we heard when we were small? Do our grown-up minds question them? To answer that question, Merrie teamed up with two colleagues.

BRUCKS: Paul Connell at Stony Brook University and one of my professors colleagues here, whose name Jesper Nielsen.

VEDANTAM: And the trio arranged a series of studies to look at how adults viewed cereal products.

BRUCKS: The first thing we wanted to do is to establish that we can tie people's beliefs about the nutritiousness of a product with their exposure to that product when they were children.

VEDANTAM: They gathered a sample of people in the United Kingdom and asked them to rate the healthfulness of a chocolate puffed rice cereal called Coco Pops.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Coco Pops, spinning tops, Coco Pops, pit stops...

VEDANTAM: For cereal connoisseurs, Coco Pops are not to be confused with the Cocoa Puffs that American listeners may have grown up eating.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Milk drops, Coco Pops...

VEDANTAM: The Coco Pops mascot is a smiling monkey wearing a blue baseball cap. Some people in the study only learned about Coco Pops when they were adults. Others grew up eating the cereal and had seen commercials for it when they were small kids.

BRUCKS: Those people rate it as much more nutritious. So everyone else has a more accurate rating of how nutritious this is except for the people who saw it as a child and who have feelings of liking and warmth towards the Coco monkey.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Only Kellogg's Coco Pops has Coco's magic secret. So it looks and tastes magic - part of a nutritious breakfast.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I'd rather have a bowl of Coco Pops.

VEDANTAM: Did you catch that line? Part of a nutritious breakfast. Cereal commercials often use language like this. Now, if you're a skeptical adult, you might guess that a cereal with cocoa or marshmallows in the ingredients is not your healthiest option. But if you're a kid, a nutritious breakfast sounds pretty good. So shouldn't your grown-up brain correct for the mistakes of your impressionable brain when you were a kid?

BRUCKS: Well, to me, one of the scary things is adults don't correct for it. They don't later on say, you know, I have these memories from when I was a child. And, you know, they're wrong. I really should rethink that. So in our later studies, that's what we actually checked is, would people, if we helped them by reminding them of health, for example, or reminding them of children's vulnerability to advertising - that if we were to do that, would they then correct these biases? And what we found again is that the people who felt that emotion towards these characters did not correct for it.

VEDANTAM: So shouldn't the average adult be able to say, look, I liked the mascot when I was a child, but I'm not a child anymore? I'm too old now to believe in childish things, so I should just set it aside. I think if you asked most adults - do you want to behave childishly? - they would say no. Why is this effect still persisting? Why does the effects of what we hear in childhood stay in our minds if we want to leave those behind in a way?

BRUCKS: Well, you'd have to really want to leave those behind.


BRUCKS: So I think that's an individual difference, that some people do move away from the love of the things they had as kids. But if you think about it, parents love to have their kids experience the same wonderful things that they did, which is why parents love to take their kids to Disney. And they love to share with them the toys that they had. And I think that they still love these things.

VEDANTAM: Remember Esther? Her health-conscious parents made an exception for Frosted Flakes because they grew up with Tony the Tiger and not just on the cereal box.

BLYE: Tony the Tiger - my grandma still kept the trash can. So we have this very old Kellogg trash can with Tony the Tiger, one of his very first designs from the '60s, '70s.

VEDANTAM: Cereal mascots appear to have incredible power. Esther told us about the Trix yogurt ad that stuck with her. But she also remembered specific ads for Froot Loops.

BLYE: Yeah. I really liked Sam the toucan because you would go and explore...

VEDANTAM: And Oreo cereal...

BLYE: There's these dancing Oreo figures. And it reminded me of the Flubber ad.

VEDANTAM: She's never even tried the Oreo one, but she still feels a kind of strange fondness for it.

BLYE: For kids, telling a story is very easy to do, especially when you have mascot involvement.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character, speaking Spanish).

VEDANTAM: In 2016, based in part on research studies like the one Merrie Brucks conducted, the country of Chile banned mascots from all product packaging and launched a media campaign to educate people about healthier foods. Mascots have been removed from all sorts of products, from chips to cereals. Some foods also have a black sticker slapped on them with labels like alto en calorias, high in calories, or alto en azucares, high in sugar.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: (As character, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: (As character, speaking Spanish).

VEDANTAM: I asked Merrie if she thinks it'll work.

BRUCKS: Based on my research, I would be fully supportive of that effort. If they do it for 10 years and it doesn't work, well, then we should go back to the way it is. But I think it will work. I just don't think you're going to see the result for a long time because these effects build up over a long time.

VEDANTAM: Merrie herself remembers commercials from her childhood that have stuck with her for several decades.

BRUCKS: I have a memory of walking to elementary school with my friends singing the Winston jingle.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #15: That's why more people smoke Winston than any other filtered cigarettes.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) When I changed to Winston, I changed for good 'cause I got good taste like I knew I would.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Winston tastes good like it should. Change to Winston and change for good.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) 'Cause Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.

BRUCKS: (Singing) Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.

VEDANTAM: It's a disturbing image, elementary schoolers singing a song about the virtues of smoking. You might think that, as a society, we would decide to expose our children to fewer advertisements. But in fact, as a school district in California shows, we might be going in exactly the opposite direction. Back in 2012, the Twin Rivers Unified School District was strapped for cash. Benefactors stepped in and offered to help. But there was one small catch. The benefactors wanted something in exchange. Here's Columbia University researcher Tim Wu.

TIM WU: They wanted nothing less than the attention of the students. So they proposed that the school could have all - not all the money it wants - but great riches if it only agreed to subject its students to advertising, you know, covering the lockers with ads, some in-class advertisements, ads in the cafeteria. And, you know, it's part of a big trend where schools that are strapped for cash have occasionally turned to their captive audiences, namely their students.


VEDANTAM: After the break, Tim Wu pulls back the curtain on today's multimillion dollar advertising industry.

WU: You know, the advertisers in the 1910s were not shy to boast of their powers. I can remember a man named Claude Hopkins bragging, you know, we are not known, but we control what people all across America want and do.

VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and you're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Most people don't like ads. We install ad blockers on our browsers and DVR our favorite shows so we can fast-forward through the commercials. But despite our valiant efforts, companies have discovered remarkably effective ways to capture our attention, especially when we don't realize it. The YouTube skip ad button sometimes vanishes. That athlete with a million followers on Instagram starts posting discount codes for whey protein powder.

WU: We can lose our freedom and become entrapped, really, by doing what we think are voluntary choices.

VEDANTAM: We've explored how advertisements influence our minds. In the next segment of our show, we explore how celebrities, entrepreneurs and media companies hijack our attention in order to present us with ads. We begin with a story from the early 1800s, when the newspaper business in New York City was bleak. The New York Times wasn't around yet, but there were a handful of other papers - the Journal of Commerce, the Morning Courier and New York Enquirer. They typically charged 6 cents a copy, which was a lot of money in those days.

Benjamin Day was working in newspaper printing, and he thought the business model needed a reboot. Six cents was way too much. He decided to start his own paper, The New York Sun, and sell it for one cent. Everyone thought he was crazy, but he knew something that they didn't. His strategy was one that Jeff Bezos from Amazon could appreciate. On August 25, 1835...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Extra, extra, read all about it.

VEDANTAM: ...The New York Sun ran a front-page story titled...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made."

VEDANTAM: ...Readers learned that an astronomer in South Africa had built a telescope that could see minute details on the surface of the moon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Read all about it.

VEDANTAM: Over the next few weeks, the Sun released a stream of new findings...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Did you read the news?

VEDANTAM: ...The moon contained canyons, oceans, forests. The telescope also identified a new form of life, a creature with the scientific name Vespertilio-homo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I can't believe it.

VEDANTAM: It looked like a human with bat wings. Here's how the newspaper described the creature. They averaged 4 feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs.

WU: And apparently, a ferocious sexual appetite.

VEDANTAM: Obviously, the people were spreading fake news. But that's only obvious to us in the 21st century.


NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man.

VEDANTAM: To the average person in 1835, the discovery of moon bats was incredible. And for The New York Sun...

WU: It carried the paper to unrivalled levels of circulation.

VEDANTAM: Columbia University law professor Tim Wu has written a book titled "The Attention Merchants," where he recounts the history of the many ways our attention has been hijacked. By selling the newspaper for a penny, Benjamin Day captured market share, and this turned out to produce something much more valuable than newsprint.

WU: The New York Sun, which published these stories, was the first paper to run entirely on the harvesting of human attention, what we also call an advertising business model. And so its profit's entirely dependent not on its credibility or anything else but how many readers it had that it could resell. So that was a crucial historic moment that began the commodification of attention as something very valuable that you could resell and make a lot of money out of. And that's why I think the paper was driven to stories, such as discovering life on the moon, so it could build its circulation.

VEDANTAM: Benjamin Day's business model was a profound discovery.


ARMSTRONG: One giant leap for mankind.

VEDANTAM: That model is alive and well today. Attention is the field that allows everyone from candy makers to car dealers to sell their wares. In fact, attention is so powerful that once you have it, you can get people to buy things they didn't even know they needed, like for example, mouthwash. In the 1920s, Listerine came up with one of the first examples of something Tim calls demand engineering. It was an advertising campaign built around an unfamiliar word - halitosis. This dreaded condition, the ad claimed, makes you unpopular.

WU: Yeah. Well, you know, I don't think people thought much about whether they had bad breath or not before the 1910s or 1920s. In that era, a new form of advertising was essentially invented, which - the goal of which was to engineer a demand that did not already necessarily exist. It was seen as a scientific process done by professionals and necessary to support new products that might otherwise not sell, mouthwash being one of them, toothbrush - toothpaste being another. People didn't necessarily want them. The key there is that you can take human attention, you know, which you've harvested to some extent, and then transform it or spin it into gold by engineering new demands. And that was the magic or the science of advertising in the 1920s, to make people want things they didn't otherwise want.

VEDANTAM: So, Tim, I understand that Listerine sales grew from $115,000 to over $8 million as a result of this advertising campaign.

WU: That's right. And there are abundant examples from the 1910s, particularly 1920s, of demand engineering working. That's what powered, frankly, the growth of something called an advertising industry, which before had really been a marginal industry. In Listerine, to take a specific example, had previously been used for unclear purposes. It had been a disinfectant. It had been sold as something to clean floors with. But the invention of it as a mouthwash to cure bad breath was the key to its success.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Light up a lucky. It's light-up time.

VEDANTAM: The attention merchants of the 1920s discovered that they could not only create new norms...


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) For the taste that you like, light up a Lucky Strike.

VEDANTAM: ...But they could undo old ones. One of the most effective campaigns was to undermine the taboo against women smoking.

WU: It was considered unseemly or taboo for a woman to smoke in public or even to smoke at all. And the tobacco industry, particularly Lucky Strike, took aim at that in two directions. One was to try to brand cigarettes as a symbol of women's independence and co-brand it with the suffragette movement. They invented this phrase torches of freedom to refer to the cigarette to show that women were in charge of their own destiny.

And the second, which is a well-tried advertising technique, was to link cigarettes to weight loss. There's Lucky Strike advertisements in the era that picture an enormous fat woman and say, is this you in five years? Smoke Lucky Strikes, or reach for a Lucky, not for a sweet. So they certainly went right at it. And the statistics are dramatic. They went from very little sales to many millions of cartons being sold to women specifically. And so I think it's one of the most successful examples of demand engineering.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) For the taste that you like, light up a Lucky Strike. Relax, it's light-up time.

VEDANTAM: Ninety years ago, you might have heard that Lucky Strike jingle through a new medium that was taking America by storm.


VEDANTAM: Radio didn't just capture people's attention, it brought them together. Families gathered around the fireplace to listen to FDR.


FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: My most immediate concern is in carrying out the purposes of the great work program...

VEDANTAM: And what The New York Sun did in print, Orson Welles did on radio.


UNIDENTIFIED RADIO BROADCASTER #1: Director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles.

ORSON WELLES: We know now that in the early years of the 20th century...

VEDANTAM: This opened up new avenues for attention merchants. Advertisers began sponsoring programs and often slipped the names of companies and products into shows.


UNIDENTIFIED RADIO BROADCASTER #2: Try Rinso. I know you'll join the vast army of women who whistle while they wash. And now, the new soapy-rich Rinso presents the new "Amos 'N' Andy" show.


VEDANTAM: The communal aspect of radio harnessed attention in a way that newspaper publishers could only dream of.

WU: You know, there were some 19th-century, early 20th-century writing on the psychology of the crowd. There was the idea - not exactly contemporary psychology - that people listening to things in mass sort of shed their individual identity and became part of a group which behaved more like an animal and, you know, in some ways was entirely wild. And that was the speculation, that we sort of lost it. You know, I think there's some support for that view. I mean, if you've ever been at a sports event or a political rally and you feel you sort of have submerged yourself into a group. But, you know, it was at that level of theorizing, nothing more scientific than that.

VEDANTAM: If radio came along and essentially showed that, you know, it could put newspapers to shame, a new product emerged in the 1950s. And it quickly proved that it became the dominant way to capture people's attention. You say that something extraordinary in the history of the attention merchants happened on Sunday, September 9, 1956.

WU: Yes. And that is what I label peak attention, otherwise known as Elvis Presley appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show"...


WU: ...Which registered an audience share which has never been rivaled. You know, there've been larger audiences, but the share of the audience has never been quite as large as on that day.


ELVIS PRESLEY: This is probably the greatest honor that I've ever had in my life.

WU: And television, even beyond radio, had shown this incredible capacity to capture the entire nation at one time, watching the same information. You know, in retrospect, it's remarkable. You think about today, how divided people are, how they all listen to their own streams. The whole nation watching one thing at once is really a product of the mid-century and something that was never equaled before and maybe in some ways never equaled since.


PRESLEY: (Singing) To a heart that's true. I don't want no other love. Baby, it's just you I'm thinking of.


VEDANTAM: You know, it used to be that for a long time before radio and television that if you wanted people's attention, you actually had to capture it in something that looked like the public square. And, of course, with the advent of radio and television, what you have as far as the attention merchants are concerned is an ability to sell things to people even when they're inside their own home. So the home becomes an opportunity to capture this enormous mind space, if you will, this attention of the nation.

WU: Yes. I think that's a very significant development, and one that people in the '20s thought, you know, radio advertisements in the home? No one's going to stand for that. The home is a sacred place, a place for family. You know, it's impossible to imagine that you'll have acceptance of commercial banter in the home.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #16: (As character) Uh-oh, ketchup.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #17: (As Mrs. Porter) Oh, I wish somebody would invent a ketchup bottle that squirts where you aim it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #16: (As character) Mrs. Porter, I've got the next best thing, a new invention from Procter & Gamble. It absorbs...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #16: (As character) ...Like magic. It's called Bounty, the new paper towel that actually attracts moisture.

WU: You know, but it came with a lot of sweeteners - Elvis Presley, other radio shows, "I Love Lucy." And so we reached a situation where everyone in the United States would, you know, faithfully sat down after dinner, watch television and, in the course of that, absorb a massive amount of commercial advertising in its most compelling form, namely full sound and full video. And its remarkable transformations almost remarkably allowed commerce to intrude in that way. But it fell, as I said, not with a stick but with a carrot.

VEDANTAM: By the late 1950s, of course, people are recoiling from the amount of advertising they're seeing on television. And a new product emerges to cater to this concern. And this product is the remote control. The idea is this device is going to allow you freedom to avoid the advertisements, to basically be in charge of your own television-watching experience. Did it do that?

WU: Well, what many people may not know is that the remote control, as you suggested, was born as an ad killer. It was invented by Zenith as a solution to the problem of advertising. The early versions of the remote control look like a revolver, a gun, that you would shoot out the ad, I guess basically turning down the volume or switching channels. And it was marketed as serving the individual.

In the long term, however - and I think most of us have experienced this - it didn't quite have those purposes. It instead began enabling a different kind of behavior, channel surfing, where you, you know, sort of sit there and push the button, push the button, push the button, sometimes for hours on end. So there is this paradox that sometimes devices designed to liberate us or empower us end up enslaving us in completely different ways, mainly because of our weak powers of self-control.


VEDANTAM: This lack of self-control lies at the very heart of nearly every new invention of the attention merchants. Even as people try to liberate themselves from one form of mind control, skilled merchants find new ways to undermine people's ability to look away.

One of their biggest victories in this arms race was a discovery of televised sports.

WU: And the turning point for sports was the 1958 National Football League championships, the greatest game ever played, between the Colts and the Giants. And, you know, it was an incredibly exciting football game.



WU: But more to the point, you know, football had not been watched on TV by large audiences. And no one quite understood, to that point, just how captivating it was. And it is proven to this day. There's been some weakening, but sports audiences are very loyal. They're an exceptionally valuable - maybe the most valuable - attention-harvesting opportunity. And this is another of TV's inventions in the 1950s.

VEDANTAM: And I have to say, as a sports fan myself, I find myself sitting through two-and-a-half minutes of ads at the two-minute warning of a game asking myself, you know, what in God's name am I doing? But of course, I keep doing that every Sunday.

WU: It's one of the few times, I think, that the old model of the '50s still has its sway in an era of, you know, streaming and other competitors. Sports is the Gibraltar of the traditional broadcast model. And as you said, you know, I like sports, too. And I will sit through ads (laughter) when I would never do it for anything else. So I think you're right.

VEDANTAM: As the television networks captured an ever-larger share of people's mind space, new entrants found it difficult to compete. Producing compelling television was expensive. In 1992, MTV was looking for a way to grab and hold people's attention without spending too much money. The solution they came up with?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This is the true story...



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Of seven strangers...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Picked to live in a loft.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: And have their lives taped...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: To find out what happens...


HEATHER B: When people stop being polite.

Could you get the phone?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: ...And start getting real.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: "The Real World."


VEDANTAM: Talk about this idea that this was, in some ways, the discovery of what today we would call reality television.

WU: Yes. No, absolutely. You know, MTV, '90s, started to think, well, you know, it could be that the era of Michael Jackson's videos are coming to an end or, Duran Duran. You know, people aren't going to watch videos anymore. We need something else. They actually thought about broadcasting football. They did a game show for a little while. But then someone had the idea that what they really needed was a soap opera.

And as we already suggested, they looked at soap opera and realized that they were far too expensive. MTV was run on the cheap. You know, they had basically no costs other than the veejays who they paid in parties and, you know, some minimal salary. So they had the idea of getting a bunch of amateurs or regular people together, putting them in a house and then just seeing what happened. The house was in SoHo. The result was a show called "The Real World."

And as you already suggested, it was the founding series of reality television and driven, really, at bottom by cast-cutting, (laughter) you know, the idea that we need a show on the cheap. The participants in the original "Real World" were paid $1,400 for the entire set. So you know, not very expensive.

VEDANTAM: And the argument made to the participants was, we are going to pay you, not in dollars and cents but we're going to pay you in attention and fame.

WU: Yes, this was the genius discovery in a way - that's one way of putting it - is that, you know, as opposed to shelling out for a big salary, especially for a famous actor, that you could instead get, you know, so-called normal - somewhat normal people to do it for the idea that they would themselves become celebrities, at least for a little while.


VEDANTAM: Thousands of people have taken this idea and run with it. You don't need to be a large corporation anymore to be an attention merchant. The screens on our desks and in our hands have enabled a new breed of merchants who have found evermore powerful ways to keep us coming back.


VEDANTAM: That's coming up after the break. But first, we need a moment to monetize your mind space with some messages from our sponsors. Yes, we're attention merchants, too. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and you're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today we're talking with author Tim Wu about his book, "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads." Attention merchants are television shows, newspaper articles and podcasts that draw you in and then sell your attention to advertisers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Support for this podcast...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: ...Dollar value, free. Just pay separate shipping and handling. Here's how to order.

VEDANTAM: The Internet has redefined the notion of what and who an attention merchant can be. You don't need to be a Fortune 500 company or an advertising behemoth. You can be someone like Jonah Peretti. In 2001, the MIT grad student had an idea. He decided to order some personalized Nike sneakers with the word sweatshop printed on them.

WU: Nike didn't really take to that suggestion. They rejected it, or some employee did, as inappropriate slang. He wrote back and pointed out that sweatshop wasn't slang, that it was in the dictionary. And they just canceled the order. And he wrote a final email saying, well, you know, could you please send me a picture of the (laughter) 12-year-old who's making my shoes?

VEDANTAM: He also went on to write a blog post about his experience, or shared this material. Describe to me what happened and sort of the turn of events that turned this, you know, relatively innocuous, private interaction into something that was close to a global phenomenon.

WU: Well, Jonah Peretti was - here he was in the early 2000s, and he touched a live wire that no one really understood well, which was the tendency of certain stories - I don't know if it was quite a blog post. I think he just sent an email out, and the email got forwarded, got forwarded, got forwarded, got forwarded until millions of people had seen it or read it. We now call that going viral, but that phrase didn't exist back then. You know, Jonah told me he then ended up on the, you know, "Today" show talking about sweatshops. The thing blew up. And, you know, that's something we're kind of more familiar with now, but at the time it was a new phenomenon, especially, you know, an unknown person having their email just go viral. And it showed that there was something new and unusual about this medium, the Web and the Internet.

VEDANTAM: Now, Jonah, of course, was not a one-shot wonder. He went on to do several other things. In fact, he demonstrated that he had something of a knack for finding things that went viral. Describe to us some of the websites that most of us have visited that are the brainchild of Jonah Peretti.

WU: Yeah. So Jonah in some ways has done a lot to invent our present. Something about virality fascinated him. I think he just thought that experience of the shoes was so strange and weird and unexpected that, you know, he went back almost like a scientist to see if he could bottle that lightning. He founded two websites. One was The Huffington Post, which he co-founded with other people, including Arianna Huffington, which was designed to use these sort of Web techniques to push a more left-leaning form of journalism. And, you know, it was a tremendous success, transformed journalism. Not all in good ways, but did. But he even went further and went to the pure distillation of attention with a site named BuzzFeed Laboratories, now known as Buzzfeed, the only goal of which was the pure harvesting of attention by creating viral stories. And that, BuzzFeed, has obviously transformed Web content today as we know it.

VEDANTAM: I remember some time ago, Tim, I was watching something that was forwarded to me by a friend, and it showed a video that BuzzFeed had posted where they had a watermelon sitting on a table and (laughter) these two people working at BuzzFeed essentially wrapped rubber bands around the watermelon. And they kept doing so until there were probably hundreds of rubber bands.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Six-seventy-eight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Six-seventy-nine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: I see her bursting.


VEDANTAM: And the idea was, of course, that at some point the rubber bands would exert enough power on the watermelon to make the watermelon explode. And you sort of knew this was going to happen, but you didn't quite know when it was going to happen. And people like me sat and watched this video unfold for, I don't know how long it was. It might have been even 10 or 12 minutes. And all this was was people putting rubber bands on a watermelon. And throughout that process, I found myself asking, why is it that I just simply am not able to look away? And in some ways, it is an act of genius to create content like that.

WU: Yeah. BuzzFeed Laboratories, I think the laboratories is an important part of the original name, they just kept experimenting until they found stuff that for whatever reason just grabbed people and wouldn't let it go. Watermelons with rubber bands. Maybe more obvious ones, like cat photos. They just, people kept coming back. And, you know, I guess we know more about the human mind as a result of BuzzFeed's experiment on us, although I'm not really sure that (laughter) we like what we've found. Or, at least we've found that the things we're interested in, you know, aren't necessarily, you know, reading Tolstoy or something, but are these strange things like the one you mentioned.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: (Unintelligible).


VEDANTAM: Let's talk for a moment about Silicon Valley and the work of companies like Google and Twitter and Facebook. They have in some ways become masters not just of capturing our attention but monitoring where our attention goes and building products that cater to the drift of our attention. Talk about these new attention merchants and, in some ways, their enormous power over our lives.

WU: Yeah. Sure. A big turning point in the history of humanity came at the end of the last century, the last millennium, when Silicon Valley, headed by Google, first really started to get into advertising and turned all the resources, all the knowhow, all the expertise of engineering and computer science to the art and science of capturing as much attention as possible, getting as much data as possible out of people and reselling it to advertisers. That has been a change with profound consequences. I think many or most of us are hooked on one or more online products which know more about us than anyone else and, frankly, are like this incredible supercomputer designed to get as much resaleable attention out of us as possible. I think this is something that goes beyond even what television or radio was capable of doing because they know so much more about us. They know so much more about you, your vulnerabilities, your desires. And, you know, customized marketing can really work, and it's something we really need to watch in this next decade.

VEDANTAM: Many celebrities have come to understand that attention online translates to money. I was reading a website the other day that was describing the Indian cricket star Virat Kohli, who has nearly 17 million Instagram followers. And the article said that Virat Kohli makes half a million dollars per Instagram post where he promotes a product. That is just mind boggling.

WU: It does show the commercial value of attention, which is really what my book is all about. And it also speaks to the transformation of celebrity. You know, there was once a point where famous people, you know, say, the queen of England or a famous scientist, they sort of tried to stay out of public view. Either they usually had jobs other than being celebrities. Say, I don't know, Einstein was trying to discover things. And their mystery seemed to add to the sense of wonder of fame. That's not our model at all. Celebrities or aspiring celebrities seek to eke out any minute or second they can get of our attention and stay there, never go away. And, as you suggested, there's commercial reasons to do so that you can, frankly, make a lot of money, not only doing your job, but just by being famous. You know, I think maybe Paris Hilton gets some credit for the theory of just being famous for being famous' sake. Famous for being famous, is the phrase. But certainly, celebrity has transformed in our times.

VEDANTAM: It isn't just mega stars who can monetize their celebrity. Increasingly, micro celebrities, often called influencers, are finding there's real money to be made in harvesting the attention of their friends and followers.

SUE TRAN: Hi. I'm Sue Tran. I'm currently an associate creative director at Refinery 29 working in the brand and content space. I also have a micro large following on Instagram, with my Instagram handle @SueTrannn, with three Ns.

VEDANTAM: Sue Tran has about 23,000 followers on Instagram. She joined the site five years ago. Since then she's built up a following of people interested in food and art around New York City. Scattered among some 1,500 photos are pictures of Yankee Candles, portable printers and, most recently, pictures of Sue posing with a Google Pixel smartphone.

TRAN: Google's actually through an influencer agency. Influencer marketing agencies has been growing in the last, like, one or two years just because people want to monetize influential Instagram and bloggers and all that stuff. So they kind of create a platform to make it easier for influencers to seek out sponsors or for sponsors to seek out them.

VEDANTAM: Sue says companies pay influencers based on the number of followers they have.

TRAN: I have a rate of $150.

VEDANTAM: There's a homemade quality to Sue's sponsored posts.

TRAN: Some of them are obviously a little bit more staged, but I don't think I would ever post anything that I didn't feel like was a hundred percent me.

VEDANTAM: Companies want these messages to feel like authentic recommendations from one friend to another rather than advertising messages directed by a multibillion-dollar company. In one picture, Sue poses with her Google phone in front of a building in Brooklyn. In another, she's holding the phone while sitting in a Chinese restaurant. To a friend, it might look like she loves her Google phone. But...

TRAN: Don't tell anyone. I'm still on my iPhone. (Laughter).


WU: It just, it indicates a sort of a new type of media environment where, as you suggested, many more people can be famous. Not in the older, traditional sense of, you know, everyone in America knows your face or everyone in the world knows your face, which was the old criteria for People magazine, putting your face on the cover. But that, you know, millions of people, or hundreds of thousands of people know who you are, and therefore in some smaller way you are micro or nano-famous.

VEDANTAM: When we think of celebrities, we think of people most often in movies and on television.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My name's Donald Trump, and I'm the largest real estate developer in New York.

VEDANTAM: You have a particular interpretation, Tim, of how "The Apprentice" led to Donald Trump's election as president.

WU: Yes. I think that Donald Trump, through "The Apprentice" and, to some degree, other parts of his life, understood deeply the power of capturing and using human attention. Now, on "The Apprentice," I think he studied what it takes to capture an audience, some of these things we talked about - BuzzFeed, the sort of plot twists, the unusual, surprising behavior. And I think he has, in his presidency and during his campaign, saw it as his primary directive to always win the battle for attention. Sometimes even losing or appearing to lose, it doesn't matter as long as there's a good show, a big fight, and everyone's paying attention to me.

In his mind, he thinks he won. And to some degree, it is truer than any of us would like to admit. At some deep level, there's some genius to it, understanding that the battle for attention is primary to a lot of other battles. You know, the whole country, and to some degree the world, is reacting to his agenda, his presence, his tweets, everything he does. That's also known as power. You know, even if people are resisting you, they're still paying attention to you. And so, you know, the mental resources of the entire nation and much of the world have been devoted to this one figure, Mr. Donald Trump.

VEDANTAM: You say that because Trump is an attention merchant, his biggest vulnerability, you know, might not be the risk of impeachment but the risk that people will eventually get bored of him. Talk about that idea that one of the risks of being an attention merchant is that people will eventually start to tune you out.

WU: Yes. You know, I think this happens with all advertising, almost all content and many celebrities with a few exceptions is we have some innate tendency to get bored, to get used to things, develop some immunity. You know, even a hit show like "I Love Lucy" eventually lost its audience. And so much as Donald Trump rose to power on an intentional move, you know, almost running his campaign and presidency as a reality show, I think when people begin getting bored, begin tuning out, you can expect a loss of power.

He may fade less in the way of Richard Nixon and more in the way of Paris Hilton.

VEDANTAM: When you step back and look at this long arc of how attention merchants have captured our attention and monetized it and sold it and found ways to figure out what works and what doesn't work, are there broad patterns that emerge about human nature and human psychology? Are there lessons to be drawn about how the mind works from the story of the attention merchants?

WU: Yeah, I think there are. So first of all, there's lessons as to how we decide what to pay attention to. It's a mixture of voluntary and involuntary mechanisms, the science suggests. And I think the history suggests it's true. So we like to think we control what we pay attention to. But in fact, we can sort of be conditioned or involuntarily attracted to things. If you've ever found yourself, you know, clicking on Facebook and wondering, why did I do that or if you ever find yourself, you know, startled by an ad and watching it, not sure what got you there, you'll know that it's not fully within our voluntary control.

VEDANTAM: There's an even deeper message in the history of the attention merchants.

WU: Part of this book is motivated by a deep interest in human freedom and, you know, a sense that we can lose our freedom and become entrapped really by doing what we think are voluntary choices. I mean, I don't have to read email. I don't have to be writing tweets or something. Nonetheless, these voluntary choices in a certain environment can leave one trapped. Another motivation for this book is an experience, which I'm sure many listeners will have had, where you, you know, go to your computer and you have the idea you're going to write just one email.

And you sit down and suddenly an hour goes by, maybe two hours. And you don't know what happened. You know, this sort of surrender of control over our lives, the loss of control, to me, speaks deeply to this challenge of freedom and what it means to be autonomous in our time and to have a life where you've sort of to some degree chosen what you want to do. These are values that seem to be under threat in our times.

VEDANTAM: So there's been a war for our attention for a very long time, at least a century, probably much longer than that. Are we just helpless victims in this war where, you know, people are waging, you know, this battle for our attention? Is there a way that we can, in some ways, take back this battlefield and own our own minds again?

WU: Yeah. This is, as you said, something only a century old. You know advertising 100 years ago was just getting started. So we're in a relatively new - over the course of human civilization - environment. And I think we can adapt. We still have our individuality and ultimately, some choice. Now, the challenge is that we face an industry which has spent a century inventing and developing techniques to get us hooked, to harvest as much attention as possible, and they're good at it. But we do have choices.

And I think it begins with the idea that attention is a resource, that you own it and that one should be very conscious about how it's being spent. I was motivated writing this book by the work of William James, the philosopher. And he pointed out something very straightforward, which is, you know, at the end of your days, your life will have been what you paid attention to. And so deciding how that vital resource is spent, in my view, is the key to life, frankly, the key to it meaning, the key to doing and having a life which you think is meaningful.


VEDANTAM: Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School. He's the author of "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads." Tim, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

WU: Yeah, thank you so much.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. NPR's vice president for programming and audience development is Anya Grundmann. You can find more HIDDEN BRAIN on social media. We're on Facebook and Twitter. Please also be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.