Myths, Lies, and Advertising
Congratulations! You now have a better understanding of the basic mechanics of global warming than almost everyone who blathers about it on television. That pathetic state of media affairs is a side effect of one of the saddest truths about climate: it is easy to honestly misunderstand, but even easier to bullshit about.
These next chapters are all about the ways that politicians, hucksters, marketing ghouls, and public relations henchpersons mislead the public through ignorance, avarice, or stubbornness. And while misconceptions and outright falsehoods about global warming can seem pernicious, in realty they’re as fragile as magic tricks. Once you know what to look for, you’ll never see them the same way again.
The Costs of Marketing to Children
“What’s a marketing report?” – Josh Baskin, wunderkind toy executive
It is spring 2003, and our blood-soaked, neverending adventure in Iraq has just begun. Like 99.5% of the draft age male population, I’m not going. Instead, I am straight out of college and enjoying a non-poverty paycheck for the first time in my life. One of my earliest purchases is a device called a TiVo, which in coming years will become known generically as a Digital Video Recorder (DVR). It is embarrassing to admit this, but the few hundred bucks I spent that day changed my life.
TiVo had been out for a few years at that point, and I’d heard nothing but good things, but it was far beyond my means as a student. As a freshly minted adult civilian, however, the purchase price was an easily absorbed cost, and the monthly fee a small line item near the bottom of my money spreadsheet. I’d hated television commercials for as long as I could remember, and now, at long last, I had a weapon against them.
This miracle box had the ability to fast forward and rewind just like the old VCRs I’d grown up with, but the real magic was the “30 second skip”. It was so powerful that advertisers had pressured TiVo into disabling it by default, which meant that you had to go on-line and look up a secret code to turn it on.* Once you punched the right buttons on the remote, the TiVo would chime triumphantly three times: it was now fully armed and operational.
(*In order to enable it, you had to start watching a recorded program, then press Select-Play-Select-3-0-Select.)
Thirty second skip was a revelation as sure as anything carried down from Mount Sinai. Four presses skipped a two minute break, though five for a 2m:30s break was more typical. Sometimes the commercials went on for three minutes or more, which used to aggravate me and could now be banished with a flick of my thumb.
At first, I merely thought this was neat. Now I could watch Simpsons reruns in an immersive twenty minutes instead of a disjointed thirty. The Sunday gasbag shows, important in those days of shock, awe, and being greeted as liberators, could be zipped through in just forty minutes, with no additional propaganda messages from Northrup, Raytheon, or Boeing.
It took a couple of months for me to realize how profound that little button was. I was in the prime of my demographic targeting: young, single, and gainfully employed. And all of a sudden I didn’t know what mid-grade movies were coming out that weekend. I didn’t see any thirty-second spots for hyperpalatable fast food, cool new video games, or beer that could turn any situation into a bikini party.
Critically, I was now almost completely protected from ads for other television shows. Whatever new and soon-to-be-cancelled garbage the network executives had decided to try out didn’t bother me in the least. The one or two jokes or lines that were repeated ad nauseam in promos no longer lodged themselves into my memory. The quick cuts of pretty actresses with perfectly selected hair, makeup, and clothes couldn’t intrigue me if I didn’t see them. The cycle broke, and before I knew it, I was only watching things I actually enjoyed, and far quicker than before.
For the first time since I was an infant, my thoughts were freed from a daily regimen of imposed wants. From my pre-school days until I was out of college, fake desires ginned up by people in suits had been a constant presence in my life. It started with toys and breakfast cereals that weren’t remotely as fun as the commercials made them look and continued through to cars and colognes that had no hope of making me as suave and attractive as I was apparently supposed to be.
The hell of it was, I had always considered myself highly resistant to commercials. I rarely bought or even wanted most of the things I saw advertised (I was a generally fad averse child), and I’d long prided myself on an ability to sniff out a boring movie no matter how enticing the trailer. What never occurred to me until after I stopped seeing the ads, however, was that the real cost of them wasn’t the money spent or the time wasted. It was the collateral damage.
Professional advertising, even if it doesn’t make you spend an extra dime, triggers the most primal and basic parts of your psyche. Lust, greed, and (most powerfully) fear are their instruments, and you are vulnerable to all of them because those impulses reside in the deepest, most reptilian parts of your brain. Firing them up in millions of people so that a handful of them will buy something is a form of mass assault as surely as if they were physically slapping us.
The results of decades of that onslaught are all around us, indeed, are us: a jittery population primed to spend on anything and everything. Lifetimes of relentless mental battery have created the greatest consumers of unneeded and, absent the advertising, unwanted things the world has ever seen.
These days, the creation of want has even incorporated the desire to fix the climate. Buy solar panels. Buy an electric car. Buy organic food. But no matter what commercials tell you, standing in a store aisle and reaching for stuff with green leaves on the packages isn’t a solution. Advertising only knows how to encourage one kind of behavior, but we cannot shop our way to sustainable.
[1 – Total U.S. invasion troops (~150,000): https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/index20031119.pdf; US draft age male population (~29,806,000): https://www.census.gov/population/www/cen2000/briefs/phc-t9/tables/tab02.pdf]