WAG THE DOG and “Engineered Consent”

In my last post, I was just beginning to stoke the boilers on the choo-choo train of literary analysis. Next stop: Conspiracy City! (With a brief detour at Belabored Metaphor Station)


Wag The Dog

This award-winning movie is the not-so-simple tale of creating a fake war to distract the American people from a presidential sex scandal. The president’s spin-doctors publicize, spin, and outright fabricate all the usual signposts on the road to war, including phony war martyrs, catchy folk-songs, and “grass roots” puppet movements.

The movie is dryly funny, deeply cynical, and horrifyingly insightful. And it’s an exaggerated (I hope) depiction of what happens every day as political parties, corporations, and celebrities try to “engineer consent” in the populace by manipulating the mass media.

Engineering Consent

This concept is not new.

You might say it dates back to Machiavelli, who identified that a ruler is only as good as his image (be it fearful or loveable). Or it might go back to the decadent Roman emperors and their Cult of Personality, or all the way back to the Pharaohs who convinced their subjects that they were gods among men. You can’t beat that for PR.

The phrase “engineered consent” was created in the early 20th century by a man named Edward Bernays, and its coining marked the start of the Age of Marketing, if not the Age of Spin.
Edward Bernays

Bernays proved the effectiveness of this advertising in the 1920s when he altered American attitudes towards cigarettes. Prior to this, it was shameful for a young lady to smoke, but Bernays fixed all that by arranging for a float in a big New York parade to carry attractive, stylish women, all clutching cigarettes beneath banners that read “Freedom” and “Power.”

I’m not sure how addiction translates to freedom and power, but the effect was dramatic: almost overnight, smoking for women was seen as a symbol of a brave new age.

BOOM. Just like that, the tobacco companies doubled their potential market. And we can thank Bernays for contributing something significant to the women’s suffrage movement: cancer.

But, hey, if all the cool kids are empowered by sucking emphysema-sticks, you don’t want to be left out, do you?


Psychology in Advertising

Bernays gave us the consent-engineering blueprints that launched a thousand advertising campaigns. Today, Madison Avenue even hires psychologists to craft slogans that stick in our heads and mascots that appeal to children, all using the same basic principals.

Most commercials are more about selling an image than selling a product. Don’t believe me? Next time you watch an hour of television, use a stopwatch to time the parts of the commercials that give actual product information. “All new” doesn’t count as information—I mean performance factors, costs, and comparisons to similar products.

A typical hour of television has almost 20 minutes of commercials, but I bet your stop-watch won’t go over three minutes of solid advertising information. The rest is hype.


Engineered Consent in Politics

As Wag the Dog indicates, politicians are at least as careful as corporations when it comes to constructing public perceptions, and they use all the same tactics.

Politicians rarely risk outright lies, but they’ve learned to spin the facts, ignore tricky issues, and bring up red herrings faster than if they had a fishing net.

In fact, the only thing keeping one side’s spin in check is… the other side. If one party stopped doing it, the other would crush them. It’s just how the game is played.

Our new challenge is that the media sources are fracturing, which allows people to gravitate to increasingly biased sources of information. Most people don’t bother seeking out opinions that clash with their own—in other words, they only listen to what they already agree with, and the party consent-engineers are all too happy to make sure that what they hear is spinning faster than a tilt-a-whirl. It’s why everyone thinks that the country is doomed if “the other guy” gets elected president.

Where is this going? What does the future hold if different segments of the population get completely different dog-wagging spin on everything they know about their world? What happens when all information has to be delivered in a sound bite? It seems like someone needs to write a book about that. Oh, wait, someone already did: It’s called Fahreinheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and it’ll be the topic of my next post.

What do you think? Where do you see engineered consent at work in the world today? Or is my wagging dog barking up the wrong tree? Leave me a comment to let me know what you think.

About Sechin Tower

Sechin Tower is a teacher, game developer, and author of MAD SCIENCE INSTITUTE, a novel of creatures, calamities, and college matriculation. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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