Media

The War of the Worlds That Wasn't

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Via Arts & Letters Daily comes this terrific Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Michael J. Socolow about the 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles' version of War of the Worlds:

The "War of the Worlds" broadcast remains enshrined in collective memory as a vivid illustration of the madness of crowds and the deeply invasive nature of broadcasting. The program seemingly proved that radio could, in the memorable words of Marshall McLuhan, turn "psyche and society into a single echo chamber." The audience's reaction clearly illustrated the perils of modernity. At the time, it cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists - or incendiary demagogues - could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation. It remains the prime example used by media critics, journalists, and professors to prove the power of the media….

That is the ultimate irony behind "The War of the Worlds." The discovery that the media are not all-powerful, that they cannot dominate our political consciousness or even our consumer behavior as much as we suppose, was an important one. It may seem like a counterintuitive discovery (especially considering its provenance), but ask yourself this: If we really know how to control people through the media, then why isn't every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the most media access sometimes lose?

The answer is that humans are not automatons. We might scare easily, we might, at different times and in different places, be susceptible to persuasion, but our behavior remains structured by a complex and dynamic series of interacting factors.

More here. Original broadcast here.

A dozen years ago, reason was making a similar case about media's effects.

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  1. You can fool some of the people all of the time; and all of the people some of the time; and that’s sufficient for most purposes.

  2. The 1938 broadcast of WOTW was a media driven event. But the lie that history records is more about what history records. In the aftermath of the broadcast, the media (i.e. newspapers) blew the panic into much bigger proportion than the small fraction of the audience that actually believed the earth was being invaded by martians.

    A more fascinating Orson Welles production was prior to that, when he was on Broadway:

    He had chosen to stage the socialist light opera The Cradle Will Rock, but budget cuts and politics led the WPA to shut it down. Welles moved the production to a rented theater, where the actors performed from their seats in the audience to avoid being fired by the WPA.

  3. The answer is that humans are not automatons. We might scare easily, we might, at different times and in different places, be susceptible to persuasion, but our behavior remains structured by a complex and dynamic series of interacting factors.

    Of course people are not automatons. In the case of politics they can make their “this or that” boolean decision “on their own.”

    Here’s another take:

    “Apart.- Parliamentarianism, that is, public permission to choose between five basic political opinions, flatters and wins the favor of all those who would like to seem independent and individual, as if they fought for their opinions. Ultimately, however, it is indifferent whether the herd is commanded to have one opinion or permitted to have five.- Whoever deviates from the five public opinions and stands apart will always have the whole herd against him.”
    (Nietzsche, La Gaya Scienza, 174)

  4. But Adbusters told me different!

  5. New McCain ad:

    Obama can’t stop the giant metal tripods from destroying your families!

    Result: mcCain still loses, but water towers across the country are blasted full of buckshot.

  6. Y’all know the saying.

    You can fool all of the people some of the time …

  7. One notable thing about the WOTW broadcast story is that it actually shows up the limitations of the use of media to create false impressions among the public.

    There were people who panicked and thought it was real. But these people figured out it was not real, by doing simple things like calling friends, calling the police, or even driving to the locations that were supposedly under attack. One way to look at the event is that media created temporary hysteria, but that hysteria could not maintain itself in the face of reality.

  8. I work in advertising and marketing. Trust me when I say we spend a majority of our time and budget figuring out what the fuck people want rather than how to sell them something they don’t. If our industry was as powerful as people think we’d all be drinking Crystal Pepsi right now.

  9. Obviously the invasion was real.

    It’s the moon landing that was fake…

  10. Trust me when I say we spend a majority of our time and budget figuring out what the fuck people want rather than how to sell them something they don’t.

    Selling people what they want seems much more straightforward than first convincing them want something that they really don’t, and then selling them what they now want, no?

  11. I wrote a song about dental floss but did anyone’s teeth get cleaner?

  12. Fascinating find! Thanks!

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