Friday, 15 Oct 2021

Damien Venuto: Why the supposed war on barbecues was irresistibly seductive


The hallowed Kiwi barbecue was placed on extinction watch this month, with reports that climate scientists had identified it as an enemy that had to be vanquished.

The claim was first published by Radio NZ, then replicated in other media.

It soon became a talking point on social media, and a rallying cry for those who were already fearful of having their combustion engines ripped from beneath the hoods of their cars.

Repeated, it became the key takeaway from a report by the Climate Change Commission – even though it was never in the report at all.

By the time corrections were tagged to the bottom of those stories, explaining that the report was actually referring to bottled LPG in the context of heating systems and cooking in buildings, the powerful symbol of the barbecue had already taken on a life of its own.

The truth no longer mattered as much as the idea, made concrete through the power of repetition.

Welcome to what psychologists call the illusory truth effect.

Do you think the Great Wall is visible from space? That the toilet flush rotates the other way in the Northern Hemisphere? Have you heard that Albert Einstein failed at mathematics? Or that sherry keeps you warm on a cold night?

The enduring appeal of these false statements comes down to how often they’ve been repeated and shared innocently among friends.

Numerous studies since the illusory truth effect was first identified at a pair of US universities in 1977 have shown that our psyche has a glitch that makes us more likely to accept statements as factual when they are repeated over and over again.

That tendency is accentuated when we hear those statements from people we trust or respect. Every additional time we hear the claim, it just becomes easier for the mind to accept it as truthful.

Politicians and advertisers are the true masters of this art form.

There’s a reason that you see the same advertisement interrupting your favourite TV show night after night. Or why politicians will harp on about a particular weakness in their opponent for months on end. If you say something enough, people eventually become more inclined to believe it.

One of the best examples can be seen in the 20th Century history of oranges.
The idea of the citrus fruit as a vitamin C elixir has its root in early 1900s advertising efforts from the US-based National Fruit Growers Exchange, which under the Sunkist brand encouraged people to gulp down orange juice to ward off illness.

The line about vitamin C in oranges was ramped up during the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918, then repeated over following decades. By the time World War II rolled around, orange producers had the playbook sorted and neatly segued into claims about vitamin C – and oranges in particular – helping to ward off scurvy.

It was all just part of a long-running ploy to sell more oranges.

A quick Google search will tell you that guava, kiwifruit, capsicum and strawberries all have far more vitamin C than oranges.

Amid the current climate of fear about infectious disease, we’re again seeing a revitalisation of the inflated claim that vitamin C can keep you healthy – despite studies showing that taking a supplement has no impact on fighting even a simple cold.

Fear is a potent motivator when it comes to our willingness to accept information, especially if it offers a solution.

Controlling that fear – or sometimes fabricating it entirely – is another powerful tool in the propagandist’s arsenal.

Take the example of “halitosis”, a word commandeered by mouthwash brand Listerine to make bad breath seem like a legitimate medical condition demanding extreme treatment.

This move allowed a product that lacked identity, and was earlier used as a foot scrub and treatment for gonorrhoea, to move into a highly lucrative niche that simply didn’t exist before.

Today, the entire personal care aisle in the supermarket is built on fears that have been carefully cultivated and nurtured in advertising.

Herein lies the other real power of the barbecue line that spread so rapidly. It tapped into the fear of a changing world that threatens to disrupt even our humble Saturday traditions. And once that fear collided with social media replication, there was no stopping it.

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