The Industry of Magical Thinking (TQP0086)
About a hundred years ago, a zany character named Sir James “Smokin’ Jim” Frazier wrote a book called The Golden Bough. It is a massive and extensive survey of “primitive” religion, magic, and supersititon. I highly recommend it to anyone that has two or three weeks of free time, and nothing to do but sit around reading (the books is LONG, and exhaustive).
Smokin’ Jim talks about a number of things, but the three elements that are of the most interested to me at the moment are these: the Law of Contagion, the Law of Similarity, and the Post/Propter fallacy. These three elements, argued Frazier, are at the very core of magic and superstition–they are functions of the human mind that, while useful in some circumstances, also result in people believing that priests can cause eclipses, or that a magic dance can make it rain. These features are not learned behaviors; they are hard-coded into the basic neurological function of human beings. So, just because we’re “civilized” now doesn’t mean we’ve banished magical thinking–it just means that we have, temporarily and only just, come out ahead in the battle with it.
The Law of Similarity is this: that two things that resemble each other are related to each other. This is obviously a fallacy, but that doesn’t stop people from making the connection. In the old days, it’s why people thought sunflowers were related to the sun. It’s why you might think that a voodoo doll works–because it resembles its subject it must be connected to its subject, and therefore the black magic that you work on it can somehow be transmitted.
The Law of Contagion is this: that two objects in proximity to each other can be connected to each other. This is a really important one. At the smallest and most harmless level, it’s the fallacy that lets us enjoy souvenirs–a piece of rock from the Parthenon serves as a connection to your vacation there. The connection is a fantasy–in the sense that it exists only in your mind–the rock could be replaced by another rock without your knowing, and the effect would be the same, but it could not be replaced with your knowledge of the replacement.
The Law of Contagion is also why we think a rabbit’s foot is lucky. The rabbit is lucky (though, not this particular, footless rabbit), its luck rubs off on the foot, we carry the foot, the luck rubs off on us. Contagion.
The post/propter fallacy is a pernicious one. It comes from the phrase “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” meaning, “after this, therefore because of this.” Back in Caveman Days, it was probably fairly accurate to assume that since event A happened after event B, A was probably the cause. But the idea rapidly gets out of hand. Just because a gypsy waggled her fingers at you and screeched something in Romany doesn’t mean that you spilling coffee on yourself at lunch afterwards is the result of a gypsy curse. Just because a black cat crossed your path doesn’t mean you flat tire is a result of bad luck.
So, to advertising. One of the most important things that advertising does is create a brand. The brand is an abstract symbol that represents the attributes of the object in question; it is a kind of short hand that is meant to include both a) the product and b) the qualities that we’re meant to associate with it.
The easiest example here is the Puma. “Puma” is a word that is cross-associated–with shoes, on the one hand, and with the alacrity of the “real” puma on the other hand. The method by which this is achieved is one of superstition–a puma is embroidered on the side of the shoe.
A picture of a Puma, of course, is not especially fast. It isn’t even especially anything but a collection of puff-embroidered stitches. It resembles the mountain cat, though, and the Law of Similarity helps us transfer the attributes of the cat to the icon that resembles it. The Law of Contagion helps us think that the puma’s speed-power has rubbed off on our feet, and if we feel a little bit better in our swanky new shoes, it’s easy to assume that the change was wrought not by a sudden shift of perspective, but by the shoes themselves. Puma has harnessed the power of voodoo.
Frazier describes a progression of magical thinking, that progresses in organization from superstition to magic to religion. Religion, in general, day to day activity, is then replaced by science. Unfortunately, because the effectors that cause religion haven’t gone away, their function is shunted into some other field. I argue here that advertising–the pure secularization of magical thinking–is actually the most recent and potentially final step in the evolution from superstition.
Religious icons have worked like advertising brands for centuries. Consider: if you weren’t Christian, and didn’t know anything about Jesus, the cross might be an interesting symbol for the sake of its structure and symmetry, but would hardly remind you of anything like forgiveness, sacrifice, or redemption. Those are all qualities that have, through the use of these magical functions, been invested in it. Churches go to great lengths to fill the mental space of the cross with associated imagery.
This investiture of energy is how branding works, too. Bass Ale was made in 1777, with its distinctive red triangle logo. Because Bass Ale was delicious, the red triangle was by contagion given the attribute of deliciousness. You could then put that tasty red triangle on anything, and people would assume that it was a delicious thing (recent studies have shown that people will not even be surprised to discover that it’s not delicious; in fact, because smell and taste are so imprecise, people will perceive a thing as being delicious because of the associated brand, rather than the flavor itself).
Interestingly, certain ne’er-do-wells took advantage of the Bass Ale iconography, trying to sell their own inferior imitations with it, diluting the value of the brand. That is, because the brand was also becoming associated with inferior beer, it was seeing its energy and value drained away.
Branding works in two stages: first, by Contagion and Similarity, energy is invested in a symbol or an icon. Second, energy is drawn from that icon to encourage people to do things that they wouldn’t do before. This is precisely how magic worked in the old days, with one rare and interesting exception: magicians have stopped using their runes on the weather, which is generally unresponsive, and started using them on people, who are generally quite responsive.
It would be nice to assume that, as in the case of Bass Ale, advertising and branding has always been a way of recognizing and establishing quality or efficacy. But if it was true before, it certainly is true no longer. Paris Hilton can become a brand not because she produces products of quality, but because she has a reputation for being a) sexy and b) glamorous (both reputations I consider undeserved). And yet, because her name has been invested with the energy of Sexy and Glamorous, she can put that name onto a product and thereby convert the psychic energy into actual money.
Budweiser, for all their assertions of quality and being the king of beers, really sells beer via Contagion: they show beer with sexy women, the sexiness of the women is associated with the beer, I drink the beer and am able to participate in sexiness.
Religious icons have gone, and still go, the same way. A famous and clever man once said, “No one’s ever gone broke selling Jesus to Christians,” and this is certainly true. You can slap a picture of Jesus or a cross on any old thing, and immediately there are people who will pay more for it because of the icon. The same is true with Batman, weirdly enough–my mom almost paid an extra $75 dollars for a special “Dark Knight” edition of her cellphone, that was no different from an ordinary cellphone except in that it was black and had a Batman logo on it.
In summation: advertising is essentially about using the magical thinking inherent in human psychology to create associations where none existed, and to profit thereof. It is the same function that created “holiness” and religious icons, and has simply been gradually deprived of the rigorous tabu that elevated certain images, idea, places, or people.
Modern advertising is secular superstition.