An airline passenger sneezes, cracks-wise ("I have Ebola. You're all screwed.") and is immediately escorted from the plane by powder blue hazmat-suited personnel. That's exactly what happened on Oct. 8, aboard US Airways flight 845 from Philadelphia to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
Ebola is certainly no laughing matter, but even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises: "The risk of spreading Ebola to passengers or crew on an aircraft is low because Ebola spreads by direct contact with infected body fluids," 72 percent (Economist/YouGov poll) of Americans now view Ebola as a major public health threat.
Why? Critics blame the ratings-ravenous media.
Fearful American health care workers, as the result of media images of people in Africa totally sheathed in full-body hazardous-material suits, are demanding, according to The New York Times, similar uber-expensive protection — despite the unlikelihood of ever encountering an Ebola victim in their hospitals.
Given our "say-anything-to-win" campaign culture, predictably, Ebola has also become politicized.
Conservative Republicans, wishing to fuel the anti-immigration-reform movement, are painting Latino immigrants as Ebola carriers. Democrats, seeking to defend Obamacare, are pointing out that Thomas Eric Duncan was not only the first Ebola fatality in this country, but also the only patient who was both black and uninsured.
Fear mongering works — even when the fear is manufactured. Why? Political "shock-and-awe" scare tactics, which can't bear close scrutiny in light of the facts, do their damage before the other side can mobilize. In addition, there is no significant consequence for frightening voters, even if you lie.
Just browse through the slick glossy mailers choking your mailbox. You are being told that if you don't vote against a particular candidate or against a proposed ballot measure, women will lose the right to choose, veterans will starve and Social Security will be abolished (to catalog just a few).
And if you feel apprehensive while reading these mailers, that's exactly the way six-figure political consultants want you to feel. They are trusting that you will be so willing to relieve the tension (and stress triggers all manner of life-threatening maladies, don't forget), you will, as Leon Festinger's Cognitive Dissonance theory predicts, immediately disengage your brain and/or your common sense.
Ever since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions to call for the defeat of individual candidates, fear mongering in political ads has skyrocketed.
Is fear mongering ethical? In the Journal of Advertising, a research team led by University of Nevada's Tony L. Henthorne argued that any level of fear that is not "psychologically ‘comfortable'" is unethical.
Still, who uses the words "ethics" and "politics" in the same sentence anymore?
But if you don't care about doing good, how about doing well? It's no accident that such global icons as Coca Cola and McDonalds refuse to allow their "brands" to be advertised using fear appeals. Since a wholesome family image is key to the constant expansion of their customer base, these corporations even avoid buying commercial time anywhere near the evening news, when folks might associate their products with negative reports.
Furthermore, fear mongering can always backfire. When too much anxiety is created via fear appeals, the target, according to a study published in Social Marketing Quarterly, just gives up. In politics, an overly anxious voter just doesn't vote.
The Guardian's David Batty noted in 2001 that creators of public service ads were turning away from "the hard-hitting scare tactics that turn people off" and opting for humor instead.
The wisdom of that move has been borne out by scores of recent empirical studies. According to various researchers, humor consistently engages the audience's attention, increases name recognition, induces positive feelings, boosts likability, fosters assessments of trust and can even overcome resistance to persuasion.
The New York Times is predicting "an explosion of spending on political advertising on television — set to break $2 billion in congressional races, with overall spots up nearly 70 percent." Unfortunately for beleaguered voters, most ads will be fear-based.
"Money has always been the bully's currency in politics," observes Christopher Lamb in the Huffington Post. "But never before in political advertising have the affluent spent so much on the effluent. Humor, however, contains the acids to cut through the effluence and show us the light at the end of the sewer."
Humor, likewise, diffused a potential panic aboard Flight 845. In a YouTube video that went viral, the flight attendant prepared her freaked-out passengers with the following words, "I know you all have your phones and your, you know, video and all that stuff. That's up to you and the video and the stuff. But stay out of their (hazmat guys') faces and out of their way. And, please, only take good shots of me. OK?"
Beverly Kelley writes a biweekly column for The Star. Email her at email@example.com.
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