The Merchants of Fear

Now, let’s get down to business.  We have this vast apparatus of television, still reaching, what, 90 million homes nightly, to sell, sell, sell!  Do you hear me?  S-E-L-L!

Subliminal motivation?—a split-second image of Pepsi or Pepto-Bismol?—old hat, my friend!  This is the 21st century, and by God, we’ve got to tap into the desires and motivations of 21st century Americans!

Sex?  Sure, that’s an old stand-by, built into our genes, or, as they say these days, “hard-wired.”  Always an attention-getter.  Can’t get away from it, see?  Who cares about, say, arms-reduction or “greenhouse gases”?  Dull, boring.  But wrap your commercials around some pretty racy programming, and you’ve got them!  Except…for one thing…

Well, you see, our red-blooded, hot-blooded American male, well, he’s not quite up to it, if you get my drift?  OK, he can’t get it up anymore!  (Maybe it’s all those medications.)  Anyway, you tantalize him with torrid sex-scenes, his pupils dilate, he’s all-eyes (and ears), and…NOTHING.  Sure, you’ve got his attention for the next commercial (think Viagra, Cialis!)—but he’s now in an ANGRY mood, see?  You’ve tantalized him, whetted his appetite, for something that’s “out of his reach,” so to speak.

Besides, his spouse doesn’t exactly turn him on, and what choice has he got?  Covet thy neighbor’s wife?  Forget it–alimony, and thirty years’ of angry recrimination!  He’s in a cage, ladies and gentlemen, and he doesn’t like to be reminded of it—and it’s not even gilded anymore.

Sex scandals?  Sure, a reliable old stand-by.  Can’t break free of the ball-and-chain, of the “bonds” of matrimony?  At least this average male viewer of ours can get a vicarious kick out of some politician’s “indiscretions”–and an even bigger enjoyment from that politician’s public humiliation.  If I’m gonna be trapped, sexually frustrated and sexually impotent, then by God, nobody, not even some fancy politician, is going to get away with it!  The transition—from tabloid newspapers to tabloid TV—has been effortless.

But, trouble is, people are tired of sex scandals—in fact, people are tired of just about everything.  You want to pitch your product, right, you want to reach out from that 45” screen, and GRAB their attention.  I’m afraid sex scandals won’t do it anymore.  Remember–we’re talking ratings, because ratings mean ad revenues—but I don’t think I need to remind you of THAT!

So, how do you do it, how to you get them to tune in every night to Fox News or whatever?  Because—and I only mention it to remind you once again—the whole PURPOSE of television, its “raison d’etre” as they say, is what?  Right–TO SELL MERCHANDISE, whether it’s anti-depressant, deodorant or underpants.  It doesn’t matter, see?  All you need to do, as I’ve been saying and I’ll keep saying until I’m blue in the face, is to GRAB THEIR ATTENTION, rivet their attention, AROUSE them from their apathy—put them in an ATTENTIVE, RECEPTIVE mind-set!

Sure, of course, lurid crime—another old stand-by.  Get a helicopter, follow a suspected pedophile as he flees across the interstates—and 20 million are watching with bated breath.  But actually, that’s really daytime TV stuff—and daytime viewers are unemployed.  Sure they still have credit cards, but they’re maxed out.

So—and this is really TV Marketing 101, folks—we’re targeting employed people, people with paychecks, people who still come home from a miserable day at work and plop down in front of the old big-screen TV.  They’re tired, disgusted, demoralized, and if you want to know the truth, DEAD.  Apathy, lethargy, obesity.  Jaded appetites.

Sure, TV is a boredom-alleviating device, but people are still bored!  They want to FEEL alive, even if they’re un-alive.  Why was low-brow, tabloid Fox TV so astoundingly successful as a 4th network?  I recall some quote by P.T. Barnum, but…  Anyway, think NASCAR: senseless, crazy—a screeching, mind-numbing, carnival of madness—but SENSATIONAL!  Get it?  SENSATIONALISM is the art—the art, mind you—of AROUSING people, getting their ATTENTION, jolting them out of their drug-induced torpor.  Am I getting YOUR attention?  Good, great!

So listen: sex doesn’t do it—anymore—nor do gruesome crime stories or sex scandals.  We’ve reached the Final Frontier, my friends.  I offer you a very lucrative four-letter-word: F-E-A-R.  That’s right: Fear!

Adrenalin–fight-or-flight—the most primal of the primal instincts!  Remember, people want to FEEL alive, even if they’re un-alive.  Remember Hitchcock, the “master of suspense,” slashing away at that poor woman in the Bates Motel?  Cheap thrills?  Sure, but THAT got their attention—and people raced to the theater in hordes to feel those thrills and chills!  Tabloid TV—or really, all TV—is an amusement park.  You want them to tune in, not “tune out,” right?  Put them on a roller-coaster of orange alerts, sudden twists-and-turns, and brief respites to catch their breath!

Now I know what you’re thinking and don’t get me wrong!  Yes, terrorism IS a real threat, a deadly threat, and all responsible Americans know that.  But remember, OUR biggest enemy is apathy, indifference, the ho-hum factor.  I simply can’t repeat it too often: fear sells the proverbial newspaper!  So, pump-up-the-volume—swarthy, treacherous terrorists are at this very moment scheming to blow up the whole country, see?  It’s SENSATIONAL!  EIGHTY MILLION people glued to their wallscreens, all-ears and all-eyes—standing-at-attention for your laxative ad in 30 seconds!  OK, good.  Still follow me?

Good–there’s more.  We’ve created what’s called a “feedback loop.”  A POSITIVE feedback loop.  What’s that, you may ask?  First, we jolt the tired, bored, dead American out of his slumber, AROUSE him, get his ATTENTION, right?  Remember: forget sex, think fear.  Adrenalin-pumping, primal fear.  These terrorists could be anywhere, everywhere!  Stay tuned for the latest update!  Watch the President of the United States at 9 p.m. tonight!  We get good ratings, even high ratings, with the added-plus that we’ve got their ATTENTION.  People are REALLY watching and really listening when your adult-diaper or denture ad comes on!  (Remember, the elderly have a lot of disposable income—and little time left in which to spend it!)

So, what’s so “POSITIVE” about my so-called loop?  Constant AMPLIFICATION: first, we crank up the fear-index.  People—bored or shamed into giving up sex, alcohol and so forth—are now adrenalin-addicts.  They can sit back, rest their dogs after another ego-bruising day of gridlock commuting and nonstop aggravation–and experience the chills of their own private, home-entertainment, amusement-park!  Fear arouses them, activates them, MOBILIZES them: BUY more insurance, BUY that security-system, and so on and so forth.

But there’s more to this loop, a lot more!  They’re now aroused, even outraged: when it comes to survival, even the dead wake up, if you get my drift.  They start CLAMORING for protection, security—who cares if their mass-hysteria traps hundreds of innocent “suspects” in their net.  They WANT the net!  The folks in Congress or at the FBI or Homeland Security—who’re watching the same tabloid-news, by the way—are also concerned, concerned not to appear “soft on security,” not to fall-down-on-the-job!  Better be “safe”—than sorry (since the next election is always around the corner).  This, after all, is a democracy: give the people what they want!  Maybe they “want” health-insurance.  But you know what they REALLY want?  Safety, protection—from the evildoers!

Who knows when the next smoking gun could be…oh forget that.  (Remember, nobody read that 9/11 Commission Report.)  So, you’re glued to your TV in Nome, Alaska, watching for the latest-updates.  Two months from now, somebody might plant a smoke bomb in Crawford, Texas—so you’ve got to be on constant-alert!  Keep watching—keep up the ratings—and our ad revenues keep rolling in!  You’re angry, you’re upset, you’re aroused: why can’t the godammed government squash these terrorists who are endangering the very foundations of the American-way-of-life?

Mass media, some finely-tuned fear-mongering, mass-psychology: an indolent lamb becomes a raging lion!  They keep clamoring: MORE protection, MORE law-enforcement.  Civil liberties, you say?  Forget it–even if Americans knew what that is, this is an emergency, an adrenalin-pumping, freaking emergency!  Our economy is flaccid?  Here’s a huge, mushrooming industry (and I don’t need to tell you which stocks I’m buying!): think tasers, body-scanners, “enhanced-interrogation” gear!  So—even BEYOND selling our clients’ products—we can get in on the ground-floor of a burgeoning mega-industry!

Amplification amplifies amplification: that’s the nature of the beast—I mean, of a positive feedback-loop.  The PRESIDENT becomes afraid—afraid that his poll numbers will plummet if he’s “soft on terrorism,” afraid that he might not get re-elected (which is really the only thing he’s afraid of).  It goes on and on, don’t you see?

So, to sum it all up: it’s a Win-Win proposition!  We can’t lose!  Huh?  What’s that?  Sure the people are not REALLY some beast–just a metaphor, pal.  And, yeah, sure, real human beings should exercise their power to THINK.  But we’re not talking real human beings: we’re talking numbers, customers, ratings—and revenues!  So get going on this: write the news copy like an ad for a horror-show—and the horror-shows like news copy!

BILL MANSON previously taught social science at Columbia and Rutgers universities.