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Forget Media Spin, Defining the Subject is the Real Problem

People make a big deal out of media bias these days. Usually what they’re talking about is the so-called “spin” media outlets put on what they’re reporting, interpreting a story in a way that aligns with some preconceived worldview. Like when one channel describes an anti-abortion law as protecting the life of fetuses, while another describes it as attacking women’s reproductive freedoms. Let me go on the record as saying I don’t care about spin, at least not in any serious way. All but the biggest idiots are aware of its presence and choose to watch, read and listen to what they do not because they’re duped or stupid but because they like that particular spin. In other words, they’re just joining the choir with their preferred preacher. If the news they watch is tinting the world rose (or gray), they wear those rose-colored glasses because they like to see those aspects of the world in that way. Like I said, this doesn’t really bother me. What’s far more insidious, and what most people never seem to talk about, is how media outlets define what the subject is in the first place.

We’re all taking sides in the fight between A vs. B, but no one is asking who built the ring. If spin is giving you a set of rose-colored glasses, then defining the subject is grabbing your head and forcing your gaze in a certain direction. If spin preaches to the choir, then defining the subject is determining the topic of the preacher’s sermon. The difference is critical. It’s the difference between filling in a coloring book and making your own painting, the difference between a train and an airplane. It’s the difference between the repeated life and the created life. The world is a vast and complex place. For most of us, media is our primary window to the world beyond firsthand experience. Because our firsthand experiences are so limited relative to the size of the world, defining the subject can radically shape how we see the world. We are what we perceive, and when we let someone else define the landscape of the world in our minds, when we let someone else define the subjects we focus on, think about and care about, we let them define us.

This should be repulsive to anyone who values freedom, be it mental, physical, legal or economical. When people define us they mold us to suit their own purposes. We cannot be free people when we’re letting others define us. Sure, it’s unavoidable to some extent, but not even remotely to the extent most of us let it.

Think about something for a second: why do we talk and think and care and hope and hate and pray about what we do at all? Why do we notice one subject but not another? Why do we focus on one idea, one person, one event over all the billions of others in existence? Why does the water cooler only buzz with what was on TV yesterday? Why are we only donating to the one charity we saw something about on our Facebook feed? Why am I more aware of breast cancer and ALS than malaria and multiple sclerosis? Why do all the loud-mouthed blowhards at workplaces across America all spout opinions about the same subjects at the same time? Why are those same blowhards’ talking points, arguments and reasoning always the same as the other blowhards on their side? Is that the complete universe of possible ideas on the subject? Why are we only voting on stuff that our political leaders give us speeches about or debate during election season? Look, I don’t care if you vote for A or B or throw your vote away on C. What I care about is what’s on the ballot in the first place. I care about voters defining what the issues should be rather than being told what they are. I care about people considering all the worthy causes and donating time and money to what they consider the most important. I care about people spending their time, thought and effort learning about topics that really interest them. I care about all citizens determining what society’s most pressing problems are for themselves.

There are an infinite number of things to talk and think and care about, but somehow all of us are only talking and thinking and caring about the things that have been spoon fed to us. Consider the recent coverage on Ebola in the United States. Why is this a subject worthy of national attention? Sure, it’s a terrible disease and a substantial cause of human suffering, but so are a lot of things. So are a ton of things. Is it really even in the Top 1000 as far as threats faced by Americans? The media likes it because, properly framed, it can scare the hell out of viewers and boost ratings. But why should Americans be concerned about it? Certainly the pain and death it has caused in Africa is a reason for humanitarian concern. But so are white slavery, malaria, world hunger, poverty and predatory lending, but those are hardly being talked about by everyone at the office and inspiring hordes of politicians to make bold empty gestures. And in any case, it’s not like the media presents Ebola as a humanitarian concern. They present it as a threat. A threat to you. But what degree of threat is it really to anyone outside of Africa? Sure, it has a high mortality rate, but it’s not a particularly contagious disease and it’s well contained in most of the world. To date only a handful of people in America have died as a result of it. Compare that to the about 30,000 people who die in car accidents in America every year, a threat that gets zero media coverage on a national level.

Why? Why do you care about what you do? They’re leading us along like dogs on a leash and we’re wagging our tails and whining for a treat.

The consequences of this sort of thing are substantial. Besides the general dickishness of inflicting emotional pain on people for profit, it has the effect of wasting many different types of resources that could be better spent. Governments, businesses and institutions are wasting money and employees and hampering their normal operations. Politicians will blow government resources on ineffectual measures to appease a frightened populace. Hospitals will needlessly quarantine people or force unnecessary procedures to keep a paranoid public happy. Individuals are wasting their time and effort. We can only do so much. When we focus on some pointless thing like this, we take our attention away from something else we would find more worthy if only we bothered to look. You might spend your time reading tips on preventing Ebola infection or canceling your flight to Cleveland instead of reading about measures to reduce your risk of developing the prostate tumor that killed your grandfather and your uncle.

And inciting fear for ratings is hardly the only insidious way of defining the issue. Think of all the new products you don’t really need but suddenly want after seeing a news article by an “expert” predicting it’s going to be the next big thing anyone who’s anyone has. Think about all the articles, reports and stories subtly (or not so subtly) telling you want you need to wear, how you need to look, what sort of job, hobbies, friends or family life you need in order to not be an unsuccessful, pathetic, unloved “loser.” Why do you care about how you look? There are legitimate reasons, of course. Maybe you want to be stylish. That’s fine. But you should want to be stylish because you want to be stylish and not because America’s top cologne producers planted the suggestion in your head. Or why do you want to get married? Maybe you love your significant other and want to formalize the relationship with pomp and circumstance, a sweet party and some solid tax advantages. That’s fine. But you should want that because you want that and not because Crate & Barrel wants the profits from your wedding registry. Most media is a conspiracy between sellers of consumer goods and sellers of ideas, ideals and ideologies. To the media you are a commodity to be bought and sold. To politicians and pundits you are the wood that burns in the fires of power. To some you are both. As long as they’re defining your world you’re letting them sell you to the highest bidder and your flame is burning bright and clean.

So what’s a girl to do? Abandon all hope? Liquidate your possessions, triumphantly hurl your 52”, flat-screen, 1080p HD LCD TV out the window and go live in a second hand tent by Walden Pond? No. Of course not. Walden Pond is a very popular park with the 9 to 5 crowd nowadays and you’d probably get kicked out at sundown. Just be mindful. Consider the sources of your thoughts, opinions and interpretations. Consider what you’re okay with. Instead of turning on the TV news to hear what the latest things you should care about are, open up an encyclopedia and browse damn it, browse! Browse until you find something that is of interest to you. It’s still an imperfect medium, but so is everything. At least with an encyclopedia you get some meaningful choice. You’re forced to choose your own path, to shine a light on a particular part of the world yourself rather than follow the theatre spotlight you see on the stage of TV.  The news is an encyclopedia with 10 entries. Don’t hike a trail through the same existence as everyone else. Blaze your own damn trail.  Make knowledge an all you can eat buffet where you pick and choose, not some prison mess hall where you eat what they damn well tell you to.

But maybe you shouldn’t listen to any of this. After all, I was the one who pointed your focus in this direction, wasn’t I? Not you. Do you really care about this stuff or is this idea just a flashing neon sign in the night, stealing your focus like a streetlight to a moth? Maybe you should listen to them. I’m just some silly, pretentious asshole on the Internet, right? What do I know? I don’t have the experts. I don’t have any power or impressive titles. I don’t run any Fortune 500 companies. I don’t give any TED Talks. I’m not a trend setter or a thought leader. I can’t even cancel my goddamn cable. And making a route for your life is difficult. Why not let them show you the way? Why not just go listen to the news, to the politicians, to the sitcoms, to the ad agencies, to the talk radio shows and to all the other voices in our collective head telling us to burn down our souls and pay them for the ashes?

Look.

Over here!

No.

Here.

Where I’m pointing.

To me.

Me.

Not you.

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Let’s Make Manipulative Advertising Illegal

You, too, can be a Gay Nineties goddess.

You, too, can be a Gay Nineties goddess.

The late and great standup comedian Bill Hicks used to have a bit where he would tell anyone in the audience who worked in advertising to go kill themselves. People would cheer and there’d be a general sense of “Ah yes, hahaha, Bill. Those guys are annoying.” Bill would pause, let them laugh a little, and then say something to the effect of “No, this is not a joke. I really want you to go kill yourselves.” The audience would laugh some more and he would say something imitating advertisers like, “Oh yes, I get it. He’s going for the ironic honesty dollar.” The audience would laugh some more and he’d say something like, “No, you people don’t get it. This is not a joke. I hate advertisers. You’re the scum of the Earth. Stop putting a dollar sign on everything. I really want you guys to go kill yourselves.”

Hicks’ bit managed to strike a chord even in the ‘90s, a time in which many of our modern marketing abominations were still nothing more than a twinkle in the dark void of their creator’s consciences. The routine came to mind recently when I read an article about the report some marketing geniuses prepared to justify their charging a million dollars for Pepsi’s new logo. The report explains the design process of the logo, which apparently took into account everything from Earth’s magnetic field to the Renaissance. In the words of Gawker, the document was a masterwork of “breathtaking bullshit.”

All this got me thinking, what benefit, what value, does advertising really provide for our society? The answer, I’ve found, is usually less than nothing, unless you consider inflicting pain upon consumers and charging a tidy profit for that service a benefit. What made Hicks’ bit funny is the truth of the matter that, unlike with most rant-based observational comedy, advertisers really are worse than just an annoyance. They aren’t airline peanuts or how some group of people drives like blank. They’re something far worse. Deep down we all know that advertising is a cancer. Unlike most occupations people hate on but realize the value of, like cops, lawyers, bankers, etc., we all know that advertisers serve no rational purpose but taking money from one pocket and putting it into another.

This is all to say advertising provides no value. It doesn’t generate any wealth. It doesn’t makemoney but just moves it from one party to another through deception and manipulation. Even providers of gambling and drugs can be justified as having some value as entertainment. What justification do advertisers really have besides the money they provide to their clients? That alone is not value. Just because they make money for their clients doesn’t justify their existence. Thieves make money for their clients, but stealing creates no value and is illegal because thieves make that money to the absolute detriment of their targets. There is nothing added.

What is the point of this? Is it really worth feeling like shit, being scared, tricked, treated like a walking sack of cash to be looted to the maximum extent possible, in order to increase sales or achieve whatever other dubious benefits to society advertising supposedly provides? I can’t travel a mile in this country without being told I’m too fat, too ugly, too stupid, too shy or too lazy, and sold the lie that there’s a way to improve my situation and that I need it. I can’t go anywhere without being told I’m probably going to die a horrible death unless I fork over the cash, that my life is a pointless, meaningless void until now, that I’m an unsuccessful loser but there’s a way to fix that. I can’t walk ten feet without having every bodily desire poked and prodded. They’ll make my mouth water and my dick tingle. Satisfaction is just around the corner, you’ll see, and it can be had a very reasonable price!  There is always a solution to everything and it only costs three easy payments of $29.95 (that’s a $3,000 value!).

I guess what I’m getting at is that the costs of advertising don’t justify the benefits, so why not just outlaw it? Let’s make manipulative advertising, which is to say almost all advertising, illegal. Such a move wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented. In Quebec, Norway and Sweden, advertising to people under 12 years of age is illegal. If one form of pernicious advertising can be made illegal, why not another? It’s not like such a move would send our economy into a death spiral. In fact, Norway has a higher per capita GDP than the United States despite crazy, socialist regulations like that one.

There are really only two types of ads, those that take advantage of the company doing the advertising, and those that take advantage of consumers. The Pepsi logo is the former. Most others are the latter. Both are parasitic bullshit and provide nothing but poison to the human race. So, advertisers, please go kill yourselves. No, seriously.