The radio host was interviewing the owner of a company that proposes to put huge, double sided video screens on several major thoroughfares around Edmonton. These dozens of screens would post emergency information or other urgent information in the public interest, such as amber alerts (when a child may have been abducted), extreme weather warnings, etc. The idea is that putting this information out near the driving public would be the best way to get the information disseminated quickly. Apart from the fact that this info is already broadcast on radio and tv stations already, it sounds pretty good so far, right?
Well, when there isn't an emergent or urgent situation happening, the screens would be filled with commercial advertising. When the radio host asked the company owner what the expected proportion of advertising to emergency information was, the owner dodged the question, saying that the screens would be dedicated to emergency information only for up to 7 days when an emergency occurred. The host pressed for the information again, saying that surely the expected proportion would have to be known so the owner could guarantee advertisers a certain amount of 'screen time' for their money. This is where it gets good: the owner then said, with quite a lot of defensiveness in his voice, that surely 'saving the lives of one or two little girls' outweighs every other consideration and makes the proportion of advertising time irrelevant. The radio host then made the comment that he expected the owner would be making that point in particular when he goes to City Council to pitch his idea.
Deep breath. Ok.
How dare he. How dare that man play on fear to sell the idea of his advertising business!!! And how dare he mix fear and consumption in the first place!!! Can you imagine this: driving down the road and seeing, say, a tornado warning on the big screen, and then shortly afterward being shown an advertisement for emergency equipment? Or being shown that the road is slippery ahead and then being shown an advertisement for snow tires? Or how about being shown an amber alert, with the emotional sight of a missing child's face, and then after the amber alert is lifted, having the ads be heavily weighted for house and car security systems, or the government's latest pre-election "get tough on crime" spot?
Fear and advertising should never, NEVER, be mixed. They are mixed, all the time though. Maybe its not as blatant as these screens would have it mixed, but all the time we are bombarded with messages in the media that danger/discomfort/hardship exists everywhere and wouldn't this nice (insert your choice of consumer produce or service here) make everything better/nicer/easier for you. Don't worry your pretty little head about the tough stuff, just keep consuming yourself into a soporific state and we the multinational corporation/paternalistic government will take care of everything. Just get comfortably numb and let the 'invisible hand' of the market work its magic.
One of the worst parts of the whole radio interview was that the business owner seemed to think that there was no problem with this approach. And, the radio host's comments seemed to imply that the owner's argument could be expected to have good leverage with City Council. Nothing like 'business as usual,' eh?
You can bet that the owner of this business will be receiving a letter from me. I doubt it will have any effect, but I'm not afraid, and I'm certainly not comfortably numb.
(Repeated bailout schemes, varying terror alerts, new psychiatric 'disorders', 'catastrophic health emergency insurance,' they're all good for business aren't they? Has anyone else seen any blatant or subtle examples of the mixing of fear and the corporate push to consume?)
Image courtesy this website.
Update, January 26, 2009
The following is the letter I submitted via email to Edmonton City Council today. I received email confirmation that it has been distributed to the councilors for their review:
Hello Council Members:
A recent story on CBC Radio talked about a businessman who would be pitching his idea of having large video screen billboards on various high-traffic routes around the city. These would carry emergency information about 1% of the time and advertising the other 99%. I am writing to convey my dismay and disgust with such an idea.
First, such changeable advertisements would be extremely distracting to drivers, making city streets even more hazardous than they already are. Second, and this is where my disgust comes from, these screens would provide a venue for advertisers, and this businessman, to profit from fear. Imagine that an amber alert has just been lifted, and the screen goes back to advertising, say for home security systems, or self-defense classes, etc. The fact that an amber alert had just been in effect could well be used to scare or intimidate people into buying such products. This would be an insidious and sickening use of advertising.
I strongly urge city council to reject this businessman's proposal when he pitches it to you. Surely our city will not stand for such coercive and manipulative tactics.