The Trained Dog Ethic
Take a perfectly ethical and justified effort, like the advertising campaigns launched to keep kids from using cigarettes. In one of these commercials, a young teenager is doing pretty well impressing a girl – until he whips out his cigarette. Then, instead of appearing cool, the girl and her friends make it quite clear that the boy is now considered *un*cool. Another ad, part of the “truth” campaign, shows kids crashing the lobby of a cigarette company, a la Michael Moore, demanding to speak to the lying executives. While the first ad is shot in that quick-cut, off-balance style of the famous late-‘90s AT&T ads, the other is faux documentary – handheld, disorienting, and high impact.
Do the ends justify the means, here? The first commercial exploits what most commercials do: a young person’s deep sense of insecurity. Is it any better for a commercial to use this insecurity to keeps kids off cigarettes than it is to use it to addict them? As far as their lungs are concerned, yes. But as far as reducing their vulnerability to manipulative media, not at all. If anything, the don’t-smoke-because-you’ll-look-uncool ad only confuses the issue further, turning the choice not to smoke into a fashion statement, and ignoring any of its true advantages. And when a choice as important as what to do with your lungs is reduced to a matter as trivial as which brand of jeans or sneaker to wear, the young smoker is not well served. In fact, kids who are self-aware enough to reject people who advertise to them in this fashion might start smoking precisely because TV is telling them it’s uncool.
Rushkoff's remarks remind me of a couple of things. Back in the '80s, National Lampoon ran a parody called Get Off My Damn Back! magazine, spoofing such paternalistic PSAs, along with "pro-social" cartoons like the Get Along Gang ("Oh, our friend is about to try drugs! Let's help her in a non-violent, pro-social way!") I remember parody ads for bumper stickers with messages like "A Friend Lets a Friend Drive Any Damned Time He Wants To," "Who Gives a Hoot? Punch the Owl in the Snoot," and "If Somebody Offers You Drugs, Just Say 'Hey, Thanks, Man!'"
The leading character in Stephen King's novella Road Rage took a decidedly contrarian approach to public service announcements. He objected to what he called the "Trained Dog Ethic": the automatic tendency to believe whatever an authority figure on the TV told you, and to do whatever the TV told you good, responsible citizens were supposed to do. The story was set during the OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970s, and the airwaves were saturated with PSAs on what good citizens could do to save energy. When the TV told our protagonist to avoid unnecessary driving, he hopped in his car and cruised the freeway every waking hour. When it advised him that blenders were among the most energy-wasting substances, he deliberately filled one with guacamole and left it turned on until it burned out. He turned the thermostat all the way up to 80. Well, you get the idea.
I don't think it's necessarily a good idea to respond to such messages by deliberately acting against our own interests, just out of spite. But these examples of cantankerousness are a useful antidote to the all too prevalent tendency to take orders from the telescreen.
As I said in an earlier post on Who Moved My Cheese?, a genuinely educated person should instinctively distrust anything that those in authority are trying to get him to believe. The automatic response to any slick ad campaign, aimed at promoting "pro-social" values, should be to critique the agenda behind it. Unfortunately, the product the schools package as "education" is aimed at creating just the opposite tendency. From kindergarten on up, the central lesson learned in schools is to find out what is necessary to please those in authority, and then do it, in order to get that gold star or new line on one's resume. Information is something one gets from those officially qualified to dispense it. School is the beginning of a lifetime habit of only accepting knowledge filtered through the institutional culture of a large organization. Next time you watch a "news you can use" story on the local "health beat," notice the number of times the phrase "experts say" is used.