The Psychology of Communication


12.3 Applied Memetics

Advertising, public relations and other disciplines of persuasion could be considered as meme management. There are several selection criteria which determine how successful a particular meme would be. The more of these criteria a meme satisfies, the more likely it is that it will maintain and spread. They include: coherence, novelty, simplicity, individual utility, salience, expressivity, formality, infectiveness, conformism, collective utility [HEYLICHEN].

Let us focus on advertising, since it plays such a huge role in our modern environment. No one who shares in the wealth generated by our industrial society can complain about advertising per se. The wealth we enjoy has been created by the capitalist society and that society requires that we are aware of its products. It is thus entirely appropriate for a corporation to say "Here it is - if you want it, come and get it" and few would complain if they added "You better hurry - it's going fast." However, even boxing, which some view as even more brutal than advertising, has its rules. One of the Marquis of Queensbury rules of boxing is "No hitting below the belt". In the case of advertising, this means no hitting below that limen that divides conscious from unconscious motivation.

A cinema manager conducted an informal experiment in which he flashed "drink Coke" on the screen and noted a significant increase in the sale of Coke. No one in the audience reported seeing the message. This raised the prospect of subliminal advertising, Psychologists dismissed the experiment, pointing out that it was a hot Summer evening, the manager had turned off the air-conditioning, the movie was Picnic, and so on. Subsequent evidence of subliminal perception [PACKARD, KEY 1973, 1976] was dismissed by psychologists. However, in Section 7.5, we found that evolutionary psychologists are no longer dismissing the possibility of subliminal advertising.

Memetics provides another slant on this issue. Hotmail tagged the end of every e-mail message with a promotion for their new service. In 1997, Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist, coined the term "viral marketing" to describe this practice which has since spread throughout the internet [AUNGER 2002, Page 13]. The idea is not new. We used to call it word-of-mouth - viral marketing just speeds up the process using the internet in what has been whimsically called word-of-mouse. It is ironic that with all our extrasomatic devices of the second, third, and fourth generations of media, we find that the most powerful means of disseminating memes is the first generation of speech.

Viral marketing escaped the internet and moved from the virtual to the real world. One hot Summer day, I dropped into a bar and the bartender recommended a Vodka Ice. It was only later, when I heard that companies were paying people to push their product, that I thought that none of the many bartenders I have known had ever recommended a particular drink. Now that I had been alerted, I found myself suspicious of another customer recommending a particular drink. He could have been completely innocent, but I remember thinking that the world had become a nastier place when you can't even trust strangers you meet in a bar. Perhaps the corporate culture should be banned from contributing further to this climate of mistrust.

Media is viewed as a Fourth Estate serving as watchdog over the first three. Media Studies often views itself as a Fifth Estate, as a watchdog over the watchdog. There is no doubt that it bears watching. It has created a climate in which entertainment memes have triumphed over enlightenment memes. Media scholars point to the distortions of the subjective map of the objective world by media mediating between them. They are the long-sought "weapons of mass distraction", to use the phrase made famous by Michael Moore.

However, Media Studies should not focus entirely on decrying the entertainment emphasis but also contribute to the enlightenment emphasis. In an ideal world, in which all memes had equal opportunity in a free market of the mind, true memes would win. But the market of the mind is constrained by so many forces, which restrict the distribution of certain memes. Any meme which seems to challenge the inflated self-concept of our species has to fight much resistance to its spreading. However, truth (spelled with a small "t" so as not to upset pomo critics) is spreading, as we have accepted the theories of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. Perhaps we will in the future concede that we are captives of our genes and our memes.