Quoterday – The Curse of Commercials

Commercials have the advantage of vivid visual symbols through which we may easily learn the lessons being taught.  Among those lessons are that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems.

Neil Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death

Commercials symbolize how television and image-based media supplanted the more argumentative and expository style of print media.  Elements of effective commercials teach many lessons about media in our modern age.

First, shorter and simpler messages are easier to digest, and therefore should take precedence over longer, more refined arguments.  Our attention spans are short. We don’t have time to dissect complex issues. Nuanced, moderate viewpoints suggest uncertainty, and uncertain messengers should not be trusted.  Those who promote pithy, one-sided arguments did so by refining an issue to its bare essence. They sound so sure of themselves.  How can we not trust them?

Second, stories are much more convincing than base facts.  People relate to others’ experiences far more than they relate to base statistics or sound logic.  Don’t worry if you champion against a rare event like Middle Eastern immigrants executing terrorist attacks.  Just tell a poignant enough story about a handful of victims.  They don’t even have to be real.  Composites will do.  Just trigger a little fear.  Ears will open up.  The rational mind will shutter its doors.

The remote 1 in 5 million chance of being a terrorist’s victim should not phase you. Can you really be too careful?  Once a harrowing anecdote hooks us in, then it’s a small leap to imagine ourselves as the next victim.

Finally, don’t waste your time wading through the complexity of society’s problems.  No one wants to hear that poverty, institutional discrimination, or healthcare are complex problems that will likely require gradual, long-term solutions.  This is the age of instant gratification. We want results now damn, it.

“If we (insert law, social institutional reform or character flaw redress), then (insert social problem) will be a thing of the past.  It’s that simple.  I can’t believe the (insert opposition group) idiots do not understand.”

Remember, social problems stem from simple causes.  Simple messages trump complex arguments.  If your proposed solution requires more than three bullet points, it is too complicated.  The solution is so obvious.  How can you not see it?

Be careful.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but 1,000 words do not automatically make an argument.  Be mindful of your emotions.  The moment you praise your impenetrable rationality is the moment you are most at risk.

Be wary of simple solutions.  There is a thin line between Occam’s Razor and an ideological butcher knife.

If someone ends an argument with “it’s that simple,” be skeptical.

But most importantly, don’t watch commercials.  Get up and refill your chip bowl.

I hope you don’t take this too seriously.

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