Between the kind of stupidity that comes from the unquestioning acceptance of opinions steeped in certitude, and that born of seething anger at perceived unfairness and fed by effective rhetoric, the ability of America to excel as a thinking nation is being impinged upon. As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, the intellectual capabilities of the United States are being dumbed down and maintained in this state by four primary causes: Our “Four Horsemen of the Bamboozle”: The Mainstream Mass Media, The American Educational System, Fundamentalist Religion and Politico-Corporate Greed (politicians beholding to corporate America due to unabashed, big-money lobbying efforts).
It is to one of the Horsemen in particular that I would like to focus my naïve line of inquiry today by asking: In what ways does the Mainstream Mass Media contribute to the creation and maintenance of “Stupid” in the United States of America? First of all, what exactly do I mean the phrase ‘Mainstream Mass Media’? If we break the phrase up into its composite parts, then agglomerate them back together into a single working definition, we come up with something like the following: Mainstream Mass Media is the communication of conventional, contemporary ideas, attitudes, or activities to large numbers of people via forms of communication such as video, audio, print and the Internet. To make our definition even more succinct, we could say that it is “Information disseminated at the fastest speed possible to the greatest number of people possible.” The type of information that is being spread, of course, determines whether this communication is beneficial (enlightening, truthful) or it is acting as a detriment to society by being ignorant or even purposely deceitful.
The perfect examples of both of these varieties of information can be witnessed in TV commercials, those Mephistophelean messages that streak across our TV screen as we are glued to our favorite programs. Perhaps due to a deep-seated, unconscious sense of affection for the rabbit-eared babysitter of my past and the never-ending video-loop nanny on to which I, on more than one occasion, pawned the care of my children, I cannot bring myself in good conscience to totally vilify, to quote Frank Zappa, “the slime oozing out of your TV set”. In fact, since the day that these glorious black-and-white-cathode-ray-shrines popped into our living rooms in the 1950s, commercial television has had a very straightforward relationship with its viewers. The tacit agreement between those who run for-profit TV and the American public is: “If we provide you with programs that you can stomach watching, then you will agree to also endure our sponsor’s consumer-geared propaganda.” On the advertiser’s part, the simple economics of their association with TV dictates that if the stuff pumped into the boob-tube is not drawing the admiring eyes of the American public, then sponsors are not going to pay the big bucks for televised attempts to capture your hard-earned consumer dollars. In other words, if I am an advertiser, it doesn’t matter to me whether the TV is broadcasting an “E”-Spectacular devoted to the talent and genius of Kim Kardashian, or if Leonard Bernstein is brought back from the dead to conduct Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony from the planet Mars. I’m going with the one that can sell the most Evian Sparkling Tap Water, New DKNY Designer Maxi-Pads or Chocolate-Covered Lard Bars. So, in essence, we should not expect Mainstream Mass Media, in most cases, to aim for anything higher than the lowest common denominator, since this lowbrow targeting is usually to the benefit of those who buy the advertising time.
There was a time, in our not-too-distant, television-infused past, when the symbiotic relationship between TV show and advertiser was a little more sinister. A particular sponsor was often the sole backer of a TV show and thus had an iron fist of control over the morals and messages with which, the program or even its stars might be associated. Programs such as The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Kraft Television Theatre and many others that did not feature the sponsor’s name in the title, paid all the production costs and therefore were the absolute bosses.
With the rising production costs of live TV (an average 500% increase from 1949 to 1952)* and the advent of those sixty-second propaganda blips, such dictatorial sponsorship declined and eventually network television evolved into a sort of entertainment-picnic, replete with the steady swarm of commercial, mind-control gnats that still annoy us to this today. The demise of sponsor-directed programming was also impelled by the revelation that the underwriting advertisers were rigging outcomes for a few popular television game shows like “The $64,000 Question”. It’s safe to say that innocent Post-War America, would not see this level of shaken confidence until Richard “I’m-not-a-crook” Nixon and his cronies imploded in midst of the Watergate Scandal twenty years later.
Certainly, if the TV programming is aimed at an audience with the functioning IQ of a jellybean, then it makes sense that advertisers will focus on this numb-noggined crowd as well. It is therefore my belief that television advertisements do not consciously work to deplete our fast-diminishing grey matter. They merely take advantage of the situation by bottom trawling the easy pickings with a massive net meant to snare all the tons of lame-brained krill skittering around the muck of our society’s insipid depths. But, to quote an old friend of mine, “this don’t make ‘em bad people”, at least no more than a vulture or crow that takes advantage of abundant road kill. These advertisers didn’t create the mass of stupid that lies waiting to be consumed, no more than the aforementioned scavengers can be accused of pushing that unsuspecting possum or raccoon in front of an oncoming car. They are there to reap the benefit, to pluck at the tasty morsels so they can feed their hungry brood… just like the crows and vultures do.
So… it seems that we can’t really blame the advertising industry for the rising level of stupid in our country. They’re just doing what comes naturally in taking advantage of that gathering mass of stupid. However, some of their methods do seem to act as a litmus test for discerning just how dumb the American consumer can get. I’d be quite surprised if subliminal advertising such as the word “SEX” barely perceptible in the ice cubes of a cocktail ever sold a bottle of gin, however, I’m pretty sure ads we get in the mail claiming that “you may already be a winner!” sold a good number of Reader’s Digest subscriptions.
Although we can’t in fairness point a finger at TV advertising as contributing factor in the dumbing down of America, in many cases it does seem to propagate a feeling of self-contempt. While the advertisers carryout this variety of bottom feeding, they simultaneously try to convince the rest of us that we are unworthy of life in this vast, beautiful, capitalist playground that we call America. Hour-long infomercials try to convince us how ugly, wrinkled, obese and unnecessarily poor we are. Throughout the day prevalent one-minute shots at our egos quickly explain why our kitchen floors do not shine, (the wrong floor wax, obviously.) why we have so few friends (the wrong kind of beer or mouthwash?) and why the Gods are, in general, against us if we don’t have a car insurance with a good Anglo-accented spokes-gecko.
And remember America, if your children don’t love you…
Ask not for whom the Nestlé’s Toll-House Cookie Ad tolls, it tolls for thee.