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Neil Postman begins chapter 9 of his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by discussing if politics is actually a spectator sport or if politics is just like the way show business is run. This chapter is titled ‘Reach out and Elect someone’, and Postman first writes about how politics is more like a "spectator sport" or, as Ronald Reagan put it, "like show business" (125).
Postman then writes about how he is more stimulated by the first simile, frightening as it may be, since in a sport, the "standard of excellence is well known to both the players and spectators" (125). We know how to watch, understand, and score a sport.
Most of a TV show’s programming is comprised mostly of commercials instead of the actual show. For example, In the US there is approximately eight or 8-1/2 minutes of commercials per half hour of broadcast television. On cable there are about 10 full minutes of commercials which is why syndicated versions of television shows are edited to remove at least 1-1/2 to 2 minutes of the show to fit in the cable channel's time slot. Pay cable shows have no commercials and can be anywhere from 25 minutes to 29 minutes in length.
In the UK on ITV and other commercial networks there are 6 to 7-1/2 minutes of commercials per half hour, but the BBC only shows commercials for their own shows at the end of a program if there is room, so a half-hour show there can run up to 29-1/2 minutes with no commercials at all.
Overall, Postman writes about how television commercials affect almost anyone in the with a television set
Postman deviates from what he was originally talking about which was the "standard of excellence" in show business is judged merely as the ability to "please the crowd" through "artifice" (126). He believes that politics in America has become a series of competing commercials, rather than ideas or true personalities. After he deviates from what he wrote previously in the chapter, Postman momentarily discusses the popularity of the television commercial as both an object and metaphor.
Postman notes that the average forty year-old American will see just about one million commercials in his or her lifetime. Postman then goes onto suggest that commercials have actually both shaped our minds and "mounted…[a] serious assault on capitalist ideology" (126).
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He argues that capitalism as a system always presupposed that buyer and seller were both "sufficiently mature" enough to navigate a market built essentially on "self-interest" (127). In this quote, Postman writes about the idea that a seller can make a claim and argument for his product, and that the buyer can then rationally decide whether that argument is a valid point that would persuade the buyer to purchase the product.
Earlier on in the chapter, Postman discusses that commercials do not operate in a rational format. He states that commercials do not make a type of claim that can be properly judged as true or false, but instead commercials use images to attract consumers to a certain product. Postman adds onto this by writing that commercials offer consumers a potential reality that cannot be exactly refuted because no exact claim is made. Postman also writes about how a commercial now speaks not of a product but of the consumer, by offering something that market researchers believe is absent from a person's life.
Later on in the chapter, Postman basically implies that he believes television commercials have been the "chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas" (129). Now a days, most political arguments are made in the mode of thirty-second segments. It does not matter the level of a certain candidate's knowledge about a topic, the most important mode of discussion is believed to influence success is the image presented through short commercials.
There is a second, more harmful, effect of this bias towards briefness of most commercials that are a part of television programming. This is so because most commercials today are meant to be short and to the point. They serve as a type of instant therapy for a viewer, by promising him or her something that is missing from his or her life (130). Exposition and deliberation are antithetical to the form of a commercial, and so any use of "complex language" becomes suspect (132). Prior political discussion allowed for difficult problems to be addressed in mature ways. Postman writes that the true ideology of commercials has totally infected our society, actually does not.
In the absence of this, politicians market themselves as celebrities, meaning they are not only well-known but also seen explicitly as figures of entertainment. Postman notes how over the past decades, this delineation between fame and celebrity has infected the political scene. Candidates do commercials, star on television shows, and present themselves as bastions of certain values regardless of the issues they claim to represent. Postman also goes onto note that when he was a child, people voted for their party no matter the candidate because they had rationally decided that a particular party best represented their economic and social interests. However, he believes that such thinking is a diminishing commodity.
To illustrate how the idea of image politics works on television, Postman details a famous set of Bell Telephone commercials that offer short parables about how two long out-of-touch friends reconnect and find intimacy through the telephone. The commercials do not make any claims about the telephone, but rather express, through the slogan "Reach Out and Touch Someone," an image of ourselves, as people who are not as in touch as we'd like but certainly want to be.
The various types of commercials that are on television, actually communicate communicate that we want to be in touch, even if our behavior does not represent as much. Similarly, in a television context, we are no longer allowed to know which candidate is best to represent us, but only which best poses an image that will comfort us and soothe "the deep reaches of our discontent" (135).
The actual threat to our civil liberties is not that a vicious government will rob us of the information that we have a right to know, but the fact is that we would rather gladly accept a discourse that presents us with disinformation. We as people do not realize that we are actually being robbed of true context and information. Tyrants do not even need to provide us with entertainment to distract us, Postman notes; we are already programmed to ignore anything which does not amuse.
I really learned a lot as a result of reading this chapter then from doing this assignment. I do not really pay attention to commercials that much unless they are playing during wwe programming or if the commercial is interesting to me. I already knew how politicians use commercials for their own political gain. when Neil Postman was writing about how politicians use commercials for their benefit, his information actually just enforced what I already knew. Overall this chapter was pretty interesting to read.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age Of Show Business. New York, NY: Penguin, 1985. (125-132). Print.