Democracy Shouldn’t Be About Brand Recognition

Argumentative Penguin on 2018-10-24

Pervasive familiarity is not a reason to put people into power


On Feb. 27, 1967, a curious story hit the Associated Press about a student attending lectures in Corvallis, Oregon, dressed only in a black bag. This mysteriously underdressed student attended classes on persuasive speaking for an entire term. It was mostly a local story with limited interest. Many wondered whether it was some sort of esoteric lesson the professor was trying to impart on his class or an attention-seeking prank by a disgruntled student or perhaps a political statement. Only professor Charles Goetzinger knew the true identity of “Black Bag,” and he had been sworn to secrecy.

Photo by Robert W. Kelly/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Black Bag’s main reason for showing up was to illustrate that the world would be a better place if everyone wore a black bag. They believed everybody shouldn’t try so hard to fit in. The student otherwise had no discernible political agenda. They arrived for the lecture every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and sat at the back of the class. They never spoke during the lectures and always left promptly at the end. Black Bag didn’t wear any shoes, and the only visible part of their body was the bottom of their legs and their bare feet. Based on the size of the feet, most people believe Black Bag was a man. That is as much as we know.

Ultimately, that class on persuasive speaking revolutionized the world of marketing. It forever changed and reshaped the way advertisers thought about how they do what they do. In fact, it’s the reason you’ll start hearing popular Christmas songs in department stores soon.

Realizing What Was Going On

The story of Black Bag came to the attention of Robert Zajonc, an academic at the University of Michigan, who noticed something about human psychology in it. Zajonc posited that the story demonstrated how familiarity with something makes people feel more positive about it.

Black Bag initially was socially rejected by the rest of the class, which made sense because it’s not normal to have someone in a black sack sit at the back of your lectures. Black Bag was the subject of ridicule and ostracized, destined to be a lonely student with zero friends. If Black Bag minded, it never showed.

Everybody had gotten used to Black Bag for no other reason than because they were there.

But as the term progressed, the students’ views about Black Bag changed. Hostility turned to curiosity; then it shifted into a sort of distant fondness. By the end of the course, the classroom’s overall feeling had morphed into something that could loosely be termed “friendship.” Black Bag had become part of the furniture, one of the gang. Everybody had gotten used to Black Bag for no other reason than because they were there.

In July 1968, Zajonc clarified his ideas about this phenomenon, conducted tests, and submitted “Attitudinal effects of mere exposure” to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It changed how we think about humans’ acceptance of things.

The Mere Exposure Effect

What Zajonc demonstrated in 1968 is now known as the mere exposure effect. In his landmark experiment, he showed participants symbols and pictures and asked them to rate how much they liked them. Then he showed them again and again and had the participants rank the images a large number of times. He discovered that people had a strong preference for the pictures, symbols, and faces they had already seen. If participants had seen an image before, they were more likely to feel positive about it on the second viewing. Zajonc found this to be the case up to about the 20th viewing, after which the effect tails away.

Your brain is led, or misled, by familiarity. Big brands rely on this.

It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t back then. You have probably even experienced this yourself. Imagine you’ve gone to an unfamiliar country and don’t understand the language. You and the family are hungry and search for somewhere to eat. In this situation, lots of people feel a genuine relief to see the golden arches of a McDonald’s.

Your brain is led, or misled, by familiarity. Big brands rely on this. Millions of dollars are spent on brand recognition. When a product is familiar on the supermarket shelf, people are more likely to pick it up. That’s how branded products get you to choose them: Why risk the unknown or try a new product when you feel like you know a certain one?

The old adage that familiarity breeds contempt is wrong. Familiarity breeds affection—and that’s rapidly becoming problematic for democracy.

The Problem for Democracy

The rise of social media and reality TV has created a huge increase in the mere exposure effect. Affection on a wide scale has been co-opted by celebrities. While there is nothing wrong with this, per se, some people and the ideas they endorse are disruptive, vacuous, and occasionally malevolent. Celebrities can cross into spheres of political influence, and there’s beginning to be an unhealthy blend of this across the Western world and elsewhere.

As more and more TV and movie stars and social media influencers become familiar faces to the public, we develop more and more into a society where individuals have their own brand recognition. Watch a YouTuber in action and listen for their catchphrases. Look for logos. See the endorsements. Individuals now behave like miniature companies. The end point of capitalism is when every individual becomes a money-making company of one. The phenomenon should be causing far more alarm than it has been.

Familiarity breeds affection — and that’s rapidly becoming problematic for democracy.

We’re also already seeing the invasiveness of the mere exposure effect in politics. When faced with a choice between an anonymous someone or a TV celebrity, who are people going to pick? A logical choice would be to choose the most competent candidate, but many people go with the person they’re most familiar with.

Boris Johnson. (Yes, this actually contributes to the mere exposure effect.) Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0

It may be coincidence that Boris Johnson is the frontrunner for the Tory party leadership in the U.K. He’s the most familiar politician for many of the public. He’s been the mayor of London. He dangled over the Thames. He kicked over a small kid during a game of football. People have seen him so many times that they’re familiar with his behavior. “It’s Boris being Boris,” we say as he continues to laze in the public consciousness. Many people might vote for him over an unknown. Most wouldn’t even know why.

It might be coincidence that President Donald Trump is a reality TV star. And it might be more coincidence that he has welcomed other reality TV stars into the Oval Office. It might be coincidence that candidates for the 2020 U.S. presidential election speculatively, if not wishfully, include Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and The Rock.

This may all be coincidence. Or it may be the start of a very worrying trend.

Society is quickly moving from a meritocracy to a meme-ocracy.

Social media has set everyone to broadcast. There will be more stars in the public eye buoyed up by their artificially created celebrity who will jump into politics. This isn’t something we should be keen to see happening. The skills required to be popular are not necessarily the skills we want in our political leaders. But democracy will show a preference for the familiar over the competent.

Why would you vote for the average man in a gray suit in 2020 when you could cast your vote for Harper Beckham? You know her; you know her family. She’s great—everyone you know thinks so. It’s not beyond the realms of fantasy to think that PewDiePie or Logan Paul might one day be on Newsnight discussing health reform. It won’t be long before a YouTube celebrity runs for office. When that happens, think of this article and come back and clap. Society is quickly moving from a meritocracy to a meme-ocracy.

The future is a terrifying mix of Big Brother as envisioned by George Orwell and Big Brother as envisioned by Endemol.

Back to Black Bag

Black Bag was 50 years ahead of this curve. If you’ve got a gimmick, you can make waves in your social surroundings and get people to look at you and talk about you. And if you’ve got a following of people, they will defend you. They feel obligated to do so because they feel like they know you. The way our brains function will cause the people around you to become fond of you.

Celebrities know that. Influencers know that. You have to get into the public eye, and you have to stay there. It doesn’t matter how or what you do; just stay relevant, and you’ll increase in popularity. This is dangerous knowledge in the hands of people like Logan Paul.

Exposing our children to a barrage of opinionated “celebrities” is unwise. The hilarious TV star of today could be the foreign secretary of tomorrow. Trump has proved it can happen. It’ll happen again. In fact, getting another “celebrity” to run may be the only way to unseat a reality TV president. That’s a worrying direction for us all to move toward.

As society splashes further down an infamous creek looking for a paddle it knows full well it didn’t bring, we should stop and think. We’d do well to remember the mere exposure effect as demonstrated by Black Bag and what it represents. Like many “celebrities” of the modern age, Black Bag had very little substance and contributed very little to the discourse. They weren’t positive or negative. They were just there.

Simply being there seems to be enough.

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