I went to my local supermarket to purchase a few odds and ends, when I noticed something very peculiar. While pondering my purchases, walking down several isles, I must have heard at least 9 incredibly annoying pop songs blasting over the speaker system. “What’s so strange about that?” you may ask. Stores worldwide use pop hits to keep customers in their stores, perhaps taking advantage of the positive associations most people have with such music. I won’t go into a deep psychological analysis of how these things work, basically psychology combined with marketing. In short- if playing pop music wasn’t advantageous to the stores, it wouldn’t be on.

What made my last visit to the supermarket different from the previous several hundred ear-splitting, nausea-inducing experiences was the rate at which these songs were played. I was in the supermarket for at most 4 minutes! Paying closer attention while waiting in line, I noticed merely the chorus of each pop hit was played once. They’re mixing the songs! I heard Enrique Iglesias fade to Will Smith, fade to Venga Boys, fade to Christina Aguilera, in nearly a minute and a half. Looking over to a man in the line adjacent to me, I saw a shared expression of confusion, disgust, and bewilderment. There was a slight moment of mutual empathy, not unlike two strangers spotting each other across the two sides of a torture chamber. Ok, I’m over-exaggerating, but you get the picture.

The question that immediately comes to my mind is “why?”. No really. Why? Did someone listen to ‘I Want It That Way’ by the Backstreet Boys and think, “this is good but it needs a little something, lets fade it to Gwen Stefani, and then to N’Sync for its full mind numbing effect”? These songs are engineered to be catchy. And it all started when a few men in business suits noticed the purchasing power of teenagers, as the popularity of a man named Elvis Presley grew. If you’re interested in more info, I’d recommend the wonderful book ‘Teenage Nervous Breakdown: Music and Politics in the Post-Elvis Age’ by David Walley.

Returning to my prior question- Are the pop tunes not catchy enough, and so must be split into 20 seconds samples for full auditory bombardment? Or is it the contrary? Are people sick of hearing that same pop song from 8 years ago and need only short reminders to facilitate a full shopping experience? Most likely only the supermarket’s marketing surveys have an answer, unfortunately something we aren’t privy to.

One final question remains. What happens when you expose an individual to songs which are engineered to grab and hold one’s attention, while changing said songs approximately every 25 seconds? Customers aside, what about employees who are exposed to such an environment for a period of 8 hours, 5 days a week? And if an experiment were created to replicate such an environement, would it pass the APA Ethical Guidelines for Research with Human Subjects?


How’s your attention span doing lately?