When the existence of the message is the message

From Ronald Wintrobe’s The Political Economy of Dictatorship, pp. 66-67:

An even more subtle point is that the party’s totalitarian ideology and propaganda may have succeeded in building its reputation, irrespective of whether the party line is believed or not, in the same way that, according to Klein and Leffler (1981), advertising promotes the reputation of and brand loyalty to a capitalist firm. In their model it is not the content of advertising but its volume (the accumulated stock) that provides information. Because better products are advertised more — or, more precisely, because producers have a greater incentive to accumulate a larger stock of advertising capital for higher quality products — advertising can signal quality: The buyer who knows nothing about two products except that one has been advertised more than the other can still correctly infer that it is indeed of higher quality. However, that repetitive quality is surely characteristic of totalitarian ideology and propaganda. That is, it is not the content of a message but the number of times it is repeated (the magnitude of the party’s investment in its promises) that contributes to reputation and promotes loyalty.

Of course, words are cheap — hence the typical resort to exaggeration, hyperbole, and repetition, in part, as a way of compensating for this truth. Why would Pravda devote two-thirds of its space for nine months to the publication of greetings to Stalin on the occasion of his seventieth birthday? As in the case of advertising, one cannot discover the meaning of ideology by looking solely at its content (“Happy Birthday, Stalin!”). One important aspect of the communication is not its content, but the frequency with which the message is repeated.

This reminds me of Václav Havel’s comments (quoted here) about a greengrocer who puts a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his window. According to Havel, the real message of the sign is “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” — or, more bluntly, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”

Sometimes the real message isn’t the message itself but rather the fact that the message exists and is being communicated by such-and-such a person (group, newspaper, etc.) in such-and-such a manner.

This kind of thing isn’t limited to totalitarian ideology. As Wintrobe mentions, advertising is another obvious example — celebrity endorsements in particular. The real message of an ad is not, “A famous football player likes it, so it must be good”; it’s, “This company is so successful that they can pay famous football players to endorse their products.”

The same goes for most forms of protest and political demonstration. Someone once told me about some protesters he saw wearing “All Homos in HELL!” T-shirts at a gay pride parade and wondered what on earth they thought they were going to accomplish. Obviously, if someone thinks homosexuality is okay, those T-shirts aren’t going to convince him otherwise. But the real message here isn’t the content of the slogan being displayed; it’s the fact that the slogan is being displayed. Exactly the same thing is true of the gay pride parade itself; no one who doesn’t already agree with them is going to be convinced by their slogans, either. The real message both groups want to send is simply, “There are a lot more of us than you think, and we’re organized.”

Name-dropping is another example. The content of anecdotes about celebrities is mostly irrelevant; the important message is, “I know famous people! I call them by their first names!”

Even most ordinary small talk probably falls into this category. The point is not to convey or elicit any particular information about the weather or my day at work or whatever, but to send the message, “We’re friends. We share things with each other.”

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1 Comment

Filed under Language, Politics, Rhetoric

One response to “When the existence of the message is the message

  1. [ “This company is so successful that they can pay famous football players to endorse their products.” ] i suspect severely overestimates the intelligence &/or self introspection of The Damp Masses. What The Traffic Cones actually experience when the see Lady Gaga associated with MAC Viva Glam, is that ‘They’ as they are projecting themselves into Lady Gaga, Are using MAC Viva Glam themselves. Of course; When they are watching the Ad, They are not even aware that the Ad is for MAC Viva Glam, They are merely subliminally absorbing a favorable ‘feeling’ about MAC Viva Glam, and When they see it in a store, they will suddenly become happy.
    – –
    Another small point; As a rule of thumb, whenever i go out to buy something, i like to choose either the 2nd most expensive or The 2nd or 3rd Least Expensive Item, Depending on how long i hope/suspect the product will last. If i hope that it will last several years, i will buy the more expensive item. My thinking is that The Most expensive is OverPriced, and you’re just paying for the Name, And the Cheapest Item is just crap. But the 3rd least expensive item is probably ‘Alright’ if it only lasts for less than a year, or i suspect that a new generation of the product will be available in the near future. When i bought my Nikon F2, i thought that it would be the state of Art Camera for Many many years, But nowadays; i buy cheap, but reasonably good camera’s because i suspect they will be obsolete in a year or two.
    Curiously; This seems to be inaccurate. The features on my latest $100 ( Cheap ) Nikon camera are not substantially better than the features on The Digital Camera i got 5 years ago.
    Another thing; The Products that are The Least Advertised are Usually The Very Best ( Nikon, Duracell, HP, Rolls Royce ) or The Very Worst ( Any given cheap ass piece of Sh*t from Any Given 3rd World Country or Arkansas ).
    Of course; The Very Best Products are Extensively Advertised, By word of mouth or Appearing in Popular Literature, Not through Media Outlets.

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