The Barnum effect

This morning I’ve been reading Thomas Hine’s Populuxe, a fairly breezy account of ersatz-futuristic design in the 50s and early 60s and what it signified — planned obsolescence, manipulative advertising, the media supplanting the community as dispenser of trusted advice, etc. And it reminded me of something that always interested me when I was studying 18th and 19th century novels, particularly when Hine asserts that “People enjoy being fooled creatively,” by way of explaining the enduring appeal of blatently manipulative and misleading advertising. Of course early novels, with their attendant expectation that we suspend disbelief in various ways, leverage the same desire for being fooled creatively, tricking us into being moved emotionally by fictitious scenarios or counterfactual histories. And films capitalize even moreso on the principles; CGI has made them elaborate trompe l’oeils, manipulating the evidence our senses provide in order to please us with the cognitive dissonance. This could be called the Barnum effect, after PT Barnum, who was one of the first to systematically exploit the average person’s desire to be tricked. Only now instead of buying tickets to a freak show to be fooled, we buy crappy consumer goods that fail to deliver the magic they fooled us into thinking they embodied and enabled. QVC, the Home Shopping Network, the GEM superstore: these are the Barnum freakshow modernized. We enjoy the fantasy that the goods arouse, and then we enjoy the ingenuity by which we were led to indulge the fantasy, after the reality of the good bursts it.

Robert Lane, in his study of sources of happiness under market democracy, tends always to count cognitive dissonance as a kind of displeasing ambivalence, a stressful confusion. But it can also be an exciting invitation to suspend rationality and to let go of the source of stress — the rational, realistic appraisal of one’s circumstances — and indulge in an unreal world where irrationality is harmless fun, or proof of the triumphantly creative human spirit, or some such nonsense. So we enjoy knowing ads are lying to us even as we begin to believe their lies. We respect them for trying to fool us, and we enjoy that in being fooled we enter a fantastic world of possibility more fulfilling than our own. I think this is the essence of current TV ads’ assault on logic (‘Coors Light is the coldest tasting beer’). It’s also a sad comment on how the real world of consumer capitalism so consistently lets us down, that we need these ad induced fantasies as compensation. This is the Excederin effect — once you start taking it to cure headaches, you no longer can tell that Excederin actually contributes to the headaches it purports to cure, and your hopeless dependance on false solution spirals.

Consumer magazines, similarly, are machines for manufacturing cognitive dissonance, it promulgating mixed messages. We enjoy the jumbled fantasies they inspire even as their incoherence makes us anxious — anxious of missing out or of not fitting in or of not really understanding what’s going on a là Mr. Jones — and that anxiety leads us to keep reading, more and more and more.

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