Many of you who once wrote and read on Open Salon will remember Sage Merlin. Some of you may know him personally. I’m a Facebook friend and, although I go to Facebook less and less, occasionally I read his posts on FB. Yesterday there were several about his decision to ride out the hurricane at his home in the Miami area. The roof was starting to leak 20 hours ago, and 8 hours ago he posted this:
“My electricity keeps switching on and off, so I have to post short notes in order to make sure things get posted.
I am beginning to suspect that those who think that there is a lot of hype in the hurricane coverage might just have a point.”
He went on to say that despite numerous tornado warnings he didn’t know that any had touched down. He seemed to think that the numerous cranes sitting around Miami were a greater danger, and wanted to know what moron left them there.
So, I have a few observations about the process of sales.
There are a number of psychological tricks that are used to entice consumers to buy a product or an idea and one of those is playing on a person’s fear.
The neocons used fear to sell the American public on the invasion of Iraq. We invaded Afghanistan because Al Qaeda was thought to be there. We invaded Iraq because we were told that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”. Following the destruction of the twin towers in New York on 9/11/2001 Americans were frightened and playing on that fear allowed our leaders to take us into another war.
We are sold home security systems because of fear of burglary despite the fact that we live in a low crime area. We are sold water filtration systems because our drinking water might not be safe. We buy organic foods in order to avoid the ingestion of agricultural chemicals. Fear works better than sex which works incredibly well.
Increasingly, fear is used as a tool to sell everything including advertising. The 24/7 news coverage has changed journalism so that issues are never resolved. Instead of sending investigative journalists to the scene to get to the bottom of a story the news media use a triangle of a talking head, and two individuals of dubious qualification with opposing viewpoints about any subject. The result is that viewers are polarized in their views based on emotion, not facts. This approach keeps viewers coming back in the hopes of finding resolution that never comes.
Why did we watch for a month as the search went on for the missing Malaysian airliner? We watched because we have a horror of dying in a plane crash. We watched the news to find out what went wrong in the hopes that we could somehow avoid whatever happened there. As it looked like the plane went down in a practically uncharted area of the Indian Ocean we had a further horror of going down where we could never be found to become food for denizens of the deep. More unresolved fear kept us watching.
Weather reporting media like The Weather Channel do everything possible to make watching the weather attractive. This is not an attack on The Weather Channel. I think they must do a lot of things right. The personnel seem to work an entire lifetime for the company which is impressive. They hire meteorologists to explain weather phenomena instead of “bobble headed bleached blonds”.
But, in order to sell advertising, they have to make the weather more attractive than graphs of isobars. So, they put their reporters out in the midst of storms demonstrating the blowing rain ahead of hurricanes, and use a variety of really dazzling digital media to illustrate changes in the weather. All of that is OK. What is not OK is starting to tell us about a tropical depression somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic that might become a threat. We have enough to worry about without worrying about something that may never materialize.
The real problem is inflation of a threat. Hurricanes are portrayed as being possibly “the perfect storm”, “the storm of the century”, “the worst ever.” Like sportscasters promoting non-existent contests between players for the highest batting average or most homeruns of a season, weather forecasters talk about the threat of the highest storm surge ever, or some other possible record. Residents are told to pack up and move out. It is going to get really bad. And then none of that happens.
Like the little boy who cried wolf, weather forecasters make us cynical of their projections and then when the wolf does come we ignore the threat. The problem, of course, is that crying wolf made the little boy feel powerful because it sent people scrambling. The weather forecasters are being rewarded financially for scaring us. They have no incentive to stop. Eventually, it will be the big one. When people don’t evacuate their homes the weather people will say, “We told you so.”
Whether it is news media that intentionally fail to resolve an issue or weather forecasters who inflate threats the real problem is that viewers lose confidence in the process and begin to believe that news they don’t like is “fake news”.