Tuesday, April 8, 2008


by the Sandwichman

The Sandwichman continues to ponder how the Big Lie works as a message. Exhibit "A" is "More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette." Let's begin from the premise that the relative popularity of cigarette brands among medical professionals is not really the issue. I mean, who cares? But is the insinuation that "cigarettes are good for your health" at all believable? Was it ever? I suspect not.

The clue to how the Big Lie works may lie in the very unbelievability of the message.

Adolf Hitler had something revealing to say about this in Mein Kampf. He talked about how people eventually "submit" to the repeated propaganda message. They don't come to believe it. They simply give up.

But what form might such submission or surrender take?

Here's my hypothesis: when subjected to a repeated, patently unbelievable message people eventually come to discount and ignore the message. But they don't do so with a great deal of precision. Instead, they tend to put up a mental screen that blunts the propaganda message by indiscriminately also shutting out "similar" messages on the same general topic -- including the countervailing message that smoking is bad for you. Of course this filtering would be most effective if it also enabled people to ignore unwelcome information. Thus the take away from "more doctors smoke camels" would be "don't pay any attention to evidence that smoking is bad for you."

1 comment:

Bruce Webb said...

Well I have seen lots of classic cigarette ads where it was claimed that one or another was more soothing to your throat. That is while just about everyone knew that ultimately cigarettes were 'coffin nails' it did seem perfectly plausible that some brands were better than others. For example Turkish tobacco had a certain reputation, hence 'Camels', and menthol was thought to have positive qualities hence 'Kools'. It was much the same distinction that was made between 'good booze', 'cheap booze' and 'rotgut'.

Back in the day lots and lots of doctors did smoke, in fact pretty much everyone smoked and there really wasn't any such thing as a 'smoke free zone'. The father to be nervously smoking father-to-be in the waiting room was a standard image. The current state of affairs vis a vis social acceptability would have been unimaginable in the sixties and still less in the forties.

It was perfectly plausible to assume that Doctors who chose to smoke had done their homework and chosen the least unhealthy cigarette. Remember there was a time before the Surgeon General's warning appeared on cigarettes and when the actual health effects of cigarettes were very much in dispute. It seems to me that this argument is seeing a decades ago picture through a 2008 frame.