History’s Strangest Suicide

How Western civilization was sacrificed in the chase for advertising revenue

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Image credit: Fort Dodge Public Art

We humans reason primarily by anecdote. We may learn abstractly that air travel is the safest way to get from Point A to Point B, but a sensational media story about an airplane crash will have far more influence on us.

The media, whether it is social or traditional, is therefore a dominant factor in the way we think. Our opinions, beliefs, and emotional responses are largely conditioned by whatever the media feeds us.

In a rational world, the media would feed us things that help us become more thoughtful and informed citizens, more capable of collaborating to address the many serious challenges we face.

Unfortunately we don’t live in a rational world.

Instead, we live in a world given over to empty sensation, and the more sensationalist the better. The consequence is that most people have very distorted views of reality, are far more fearful than they should be (and invariably about the wrong things), and more prone to holding extreme views that are entirely unjustified by all available empirical evidence.

How have we arrived at such a dysfunctional destination?

Our problem begins a long time ago, when mass manufacturing was starting to dominate the consumer goods business. The problem the manufacturers were facing was simple: how to get millions of people to buy their products.

As no one goes out to buy something they aren’t aware of yet, the solution seemed to be to enable people to become aware of available products, ideally in a manner that made the products desirable and thus more likely to induce purchase. In this way, advertising was born.

Advertising was initially quite crude. A picture of the product would be painted on the side of a wall past which the target consumers were known to walk in reasonable numbers. Thus men on their way to a factory might see a wall on which was painted a packet of cigarettes while women on their way to the market might see a wall on which was painted a bar of soap. And yes, those were different and more gender-separated times back then.

As newspapers and magazines began to increase their readerships it became efficacious to place similar adverts among their pages. Thus a woman reading a magazine of helpful recipes and sewing tips would be exposed to ads for foodstuffs, needles & thread, and perhaps clothing. A man reading a newspaper would see ads for cigarettes, hats, shoes, and umbrellas. This was the beginning of demographic targeting.

We are so accustomed these days to seeing ads everywhere that we tend to overlook the fact that ads only work if they attract the attention of a sufficiently large number of those being targeted. This in turn means media that relies primarily on revenues from advertisers will consciously create content that attracts a sufficiently large degree of attention. Hence the old newspaper adge, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

We humans love sensation, the unusual, the quirky. Our daily lives are usually so humdrum that sensation is a pleasing distraction. And so the media gives us an endless diet of sensation because that’s the easiest way to ensure a sufficiently large audience for those all-important adverts.

The problem is that sensation isn’t representative of real life. In real life over 100,000 passenger flights take off and land around the world without incident. But no media article on this important fact would grab eyeballs, so instead the media waits for the ultra-rare accident and then plasters it across our consciousness. So plenty of people become afraid of flying but are happy to get into their automobile in which their probability of injury or death is hundreds of thousands of times greater.

In real life, 98% of immigrants obey the local laws and pay their taxes and make valuable contributions to the countries that admit them. But the media gives us the ultra-rare sensational event of a killing or a rape, so we believe that immigrants are dangerous. No media article with the heading “99% of all crimes are committed by those who were born in our country” would get much attention, but a media article about a single disturbed individual who also happens to be an immigrant will be lapped up by millions.

It’s easy to see how a constant diet of sensationalism will inevitably make us more fearful and suspicious of precisely the wrong things. More US citizens are terrified of supposedly rapist murdering drug-dealing immigrants than of climate change and Trump-engendered diplomatic isolation. Yet the actual number of immigrant crimes is minuscule while climate change and Trump’s blundering presidency are both enormous threats to the continuation of civilization as we know it.

The West, therefore, is the first civilization in human history to commit suicide in pursuit of advertising revenue. We are effectively witnessing mass brainwashing in the service of selling ever-more redundant consumer goods.

Ironically, advertising doesn’t actually work very well. For every 100,000 people who see an ad, a minuscule fraction will go on to make a purchase of the item. So we’re destroying our civilization for the sake of a business model that basically sucks.

Even more bathetic (sic) is the fact that the highest aspiration of so many people today is to turn themselves into human billboards, advertising various products as “influencers” on social media.

If our species survives it is highly probable that historians looking back on our present age will shake their heads in disbelief. Either that or they will convulse with hysterical laughter.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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