What are you scared of?

In Eula Biss’s new book, On Immunity: An Innoculation she writes about fears, rational and otherwise, associated with vaccinating ourselves against terrible diseases. It’s a good read, a lot more interesting and scary than you might think. However, it was a tangential paragraph about fear in general that I bookmarked for later consideration:

“We do not tend to be afraid of the things that are most likely going to harm us. We drive around in cars, a lot. We drink alcohol, we ride bicycles, we sit too much. And we harbor anxieties about things that, statistically speaking, pose us little danger. We fear sharks, while mosquitos are, in terms of sheer numbers of lives lost, probably the most dangerous creatures on earth.”

Biss provides more context as well as fascinating quotes around the topic but you get the idea. We are scared of remarkable things but are indifferent to mundane items that are, frankly, far more dangerous to us. For example, every spring entire football stadiums are emptied out because of lightning spotted in the area. The rarity of being struck by lightning is more or less a cliché yet we fear it excessively. Of course, we don’t question authorities for taking such precautions. But I am struck by certain ironies, perhaps not so obvious. Consider that in those same football stadiums countless cups of beer and nachos are zealously sold and consumed even though alcoholism and obesity will, in fact, kill thousands of people in this country ever year; and a lot of them probably at those very ballgames that were postponed do to weather.

I know very well the tendency to do things that are bad for me despite knowing full well they are bad for me. When I drank, the fear of poisoning myself to death was not present; not like the fear of being struck down by a lightning bolt. To different extents, all humans are like this.

I can’t help but wonder what role popular culture and, in particular, advertising plays in this potentially dangerous mega-quirk of our thinking. Advertisers pummel us with enticing messages about alcohol, cars, soft drinks and fast food.


Fear of flying but not bacon…

Sexy women slobber over bacon double cheeseburgers inviting us to join the “mile high club” referring to piles of bacon. Bud Light proudly states it’s the beer for those who are “up for whatever.” Ad nausea, literally and figuratively.

The theme for this blog is, “we make you want what you don’t need.” I came up with that more as a provocation regarding the sins of envy and gluttony. Is it possible many persuasive communications are even more insidious? Over time do many of them actually cause us to allay otherwise rational fears for our emotional desires?

Of course they do. Caveat Emptor!


“Radio lies and apologizes at the same time. Just like my husband!”

Driving my daughter to school the other day she became perplexed by a commercial on the radio, specifically the hurried voice over at the end of it. You know what I’m talking about. The legal copy advertisers are obligated to run warning consumers about certain claims, mitigating the ancient notion of caveat emptor (buyer beware). Here, the voice over is noticeably sped up to fit all the information into as small a space as possible. Like you, I’ve become jaded by this chip monk-sounding gibberish. Sometimes I don’t even hear it.

Naturally, my children are more curious. And I don’t blame them for laughing. The sped-up VO is patently ridiculous, helping neither the advertiser nor the consumer. It’s an industry practice started some time ago, likely mandated by a government consumer watchdog. For all I know Ralph Nader is to blame.

“I don’t get it,” my daughter said. “Those men at the end of the commercial are forced into telling us the commercial isn’t telling the truth?”

I nod. “Something like that.”

“And that’s what forced the people who made the commercial to make the guy talk so fast in the first place. So nobody could understand him?”

“Yes… Sort of.”

“But that’s crazy, Dad!”

“Try reading the microscopic type they use in print ads. It’s even worse.”

My daughter crinkled her nose, as if smelling something disagreeable. “Wouldn’t it be better if nobody lied in the first place?”

“Of course,” I stammered. “But advertising is different.” Immediately, I hated my answer. But I had nothing better. Thankfully, music returned to the radio. I turned it up and we drove away from the question.

Make it go away…I think.

This is an old story, I know. It’s about a phenomena in modern advertising that defies all logic yet persists none-the-less. I’m talking about the lengthy, often graphic, highly negative copy at the end of most pharmaceutical advertisements. You know the stuff: Shortness of breath, dizziness, bloody stool, 11-hour erections; My God, why not just stick a fondue fork in your penis? Some of this copy is so unsettling it would be considered inappropriate for TV if not for the fact it was, by law, made for TV!

Like I said: an old story. So much so, we’ve become inured to it. What was once ripe fodder for SNL parody is now perfunctory staple. A handsome, older couple walks into their bedroom for Viagra-inspired sex while the AVO describes all the bad things that might happen to them (and us). A woman suffers from depression and crippling anxiety. With one pill, she’s her old self again. Provided she doesn’t experience a seizure.

There’s something puritanical about these warnings, don’t you think? As if users of such drugs are making a deal with the devil. You want to get hard like a teenager? You want true bliss? Fine. But hellish circumstances await you. You are playing Russian roulette.

I understand why we have these warnings. Not too long ago drug companies of all shapes and sizes promised miracles of all shapes and sizes, unabated by authorities or morals for that matter. Our nation’s history is rife with magic elixirs and cure-alls. Well into the twentieth century such salacious advertisements were protected under the auspices of caveat emptor -let the buyer beware.

Yet, the solution seems just as crazy, for both consumers and advertisers. If, indeed, we have become inured to all these wacky warnings then they serve no purpose, do they? No one really thinks they’re going to experience a 4-hour boner. And even if they did do they also believe it would require medical attention? We laugh at such warnings; that is if we pay attention to them at all.

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