Advertising and Government

the business of selling fear

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Why? Because it's good for business.

Businesses exist to sell things. (Duh. But bear with me. I'm going to start by recapping the obvious before I get on with what I'm really here to talk about.)

Suppose you own a business, and that business is how you make your money. It is your day job. You need it to feed yourself, pay the rent, put gas in the car, go to a movie, all the stuff that keeps us healthy and (we hope) happy these days. But, if your business spends enough time not selling things, you will go out of business. There won't be any money to pay for all those things you need and want.

So, the pressure's on: ya gotta sell stuff. How are you going to do that? Well ... by advertising. If people are going to buy what you sell, they have to know who you are, what you sell, and how to get what you sell.

Oh, and you have to make them want what you sell so that they will buy it. Preferably from you instead of from some guy down the street, because if he sells it and you don't, you're still stuck in that not-selling thing.

So, how do you advertise? Specifically, how do you make people want something that you're selling? Well, much depends on what you're selling, whether you're providing "needs" or "wants".

If you sell food, stuff that everyone needs, you probably don't have to do much more than let them know you exist, and maybe convince them that you're somehow "better" than other people who sell food: friendlier, cheaper, better quality, whatever. Maybe your dog has a better pedigree than the other guy. One way or the other, people need what you sell, so it doesn't take rocket science to make them want to buy it. Your only real challenge is to get enough of them to buy it from you rather than your competitors.

But suppose you don't sell food. Instead, you sell ... feminine deodorant spray. People don't need that. Really. I promise. No one really needs to have their crotch smell like fake strawberries or a perfume factory.

This is harder. —No, this is a lot harder. Now, you have to convince 'em that they want it — or, better, that they really do need it even though you know they don't. This is where we get into the science of advertising, and where the people who sell advertising begin to salivate.

(Why would someone even invent something like that, never mind try to sell it? I'm not quite sure. I wouldn't. But think about this: once upon a time, no one really needed a television. Things change, and you can't always tell what tomorrow's "needs" are going to be. Though I confess, I wouldn't bet we'll ever "need" crotch deodorant.)

There are two basic ways to make someone think they need something. The first is to convince them that they'll be a better person, happier, more fulfilled, if they have it. That kind of advertising says things like, "Things go better with Coke." Buy this product and you'll have more fun, live better, get laid more often.

Then there's the other way: convince them that they'll be worse if they don't have it. People will shun them. No one will love them. They'll be cast out of polite society. Oh no, my teeth aren't white enough — no one will want to kiss me! And oh my god, my vagina smells like ... like ... a VAGINA! The shame! The humiliation! How can I ever dare to hold my head up in public again?

It sounds ridiculous when you say it like that, doesn't it? But that's exactly what the ads are telling you: that your friends are doing you a favor by telling you about your dandruff "problem".

This is an insidious form of advertising, and very effective. At first, most people laugh at it, and think it's ridiculous. But hearing it often enough can plant the first seeds of doubt, make people wonder. And doubt can lead to fear. And fear — or rather, relief from fear — is what those advertisers are really selling.

Fear is a very powerful force. Fear can kill people, start wars, transform societies. Fear can make you do amazingly stupid things. Advertisers understand this: people who are afraid aren't thinking. They're more docile, more easily led. They'll run right out and buy the product that will help relieve that fear. Suddenly, people need this thing that will take away their fear. Yesterday the product was ludicrous; today it's necessary for our survival.

Conveniently, the advertiser has that product right here, right now, and they'll be happy to sell it to you. Operators are standing by!

That's probably the commonest form of advertising:

  1. define a "problem" that the product being advertised will solve,
  2. make people afraid of the problem, then
  3. offer to sell the solution.

Success is measured by how many people believe in the problem, and thus buy the solution. Never mind that the problem is invented: everyone has forgotten that. What they remember is that they have a problem, and the right feminine deodorant spray will solve it.

Um. Sure, mister, whatever you say.

On the other hand, ultimately that's not so bad. So we waste a few bucks on stuff we were fooled into thinking we needed. So what? Eventually, we'll probably figure it out. Then we'll feel really foolish for a while, and afterward we can laugh about it. If that's the worst such "problem" we ever face, we'll be doing all right.

Unfortunately, there are other uses for that kind of advertising that aren't nearly so harmless, or so laughable. In fact, they can be downright dangerous, even fatal. And there's a big group of people who know all about that very dangerous form of advertising and are more than happy to use it to sell things. I am, of course, talking about the government. The people who make and enforce the rules that they insist the rest of us must live by, the people whom we're supposed to trust to protect us, are themselves in the business of selling us solutions to problems that they invented.

In fact, it's a fair bet that the only reason we ever believed we need them in the first place is that their advertising conned us into it. (For more reading on that, see R. Buckminster Fuller's Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.) And the truly horrible thing is, they do it for the same reason any other business does: they need to sell things in order to eat; and what a government sells is protection.

Does that sound like a ridiculous premise? If so, go back and reread what I said about day jobs. Your day job is how you put food on your table and a roof over your head. Now think about what a "job" might be.

To a sheriff, arresting criminals is his day job. Particularly when he has to stand for election, if he doesn't convince people that he'll do a better job than the other candidates, he'll be collecting unemployment. For a jailer, keeping those criminals incarcerated is his day job. And for a governor, passing the laws that create those criminals is his day job. No criminals means no job, and no job means no food. If they don't sell safety from criminal elements, they don't eat. To do that, they must convince us that we cannot do the same things for ourselves — we need them to do it for us.

In order to preserve their jobs and create new jobs (hey, every business likes to grow), they are constantly trying to sell protection from more and different kinds of threat. Prostitutes. Drug users. People who cross the street against the light. Don't laugh: jaywalking is a crime. So is skateboarding in many municipalities — now there's a criminal element, make no mistake!

Kids who play video games. That's also not a joke: one of the senior editors at[1] wrote an article detailing U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman's efforts to regulate video games.

The law doesn't differentiate between "nuisances" and people who do real damage. It calls them all "criminals", and the only remedy it knows is to put them in jail for their misbehaviors.

As long as we're nominating criminal elements, how about auto manufacturers who use softer hollow tires on automobiles? That was one of the charges leveled against Chevrolet's Corvair by Ralph Nader in his book Unsafe At Any Speed. He's making a lot of the same sort of charges now[2], in his campaign to become president of the USA. His reputation, his fame, and his job are founded upon, and depend for their continuity on, his ability to identify villains.

He's also not alone: there are almost no policial parties in the present election — or in any election — who are not campaigning for new things that "must" be outlawed in order to "preserve safety".

And you know what? We believe them. Lots of us believe them, enough that this tactic wins elections. Which, if you'll refer back to what I said a bit earlier, is how we measure the success of an advertising campaign.

If that kind of mind-rape doesn't make you feel really scared, I don't know what will.


[1] has since merged with MX123.

[2] "Now" would be the 2000 Presidential election campaign, when this was written.

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Fri, 12 Jul 2024 2:3 PM.
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