Hidden Brain: Our Mental Space, Under Attack

Corporations ranging from Google to Fox News have found ways to grab your attention, package it and then make money from it. Their strategies are part of a long legacy of companies trying to capture and monetize our attention. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu calls these businesses attention merchants.

.. 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.

.. Attention is the fuel 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.

..  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 could 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.

.. something extraordinary in the history of the attention merchants happened on Sunday, September 9, 1956.

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.


.. 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 the discovery of televised sports.

WU: And the turning point for sports was the 1958 National Football League Championships. The game of 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 has 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.


..  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, and 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

.. 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 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, 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.

..  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 ever more powerful ways to keep us coming back. 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 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 twist, 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 everybody’s paying attention to me. In his mind, he thinks he’s 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.


.. 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. 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.