Thursday, March 1, 2012

An Individual Discovers her Insignificance (painfully)

I read Sameer Rahim’s piece in this morning’s London Telegraph, about the controversy arising over a billboard promoting the return of Mad Men, with great interest.  The billboard depicts the “falling Don Draper” image, which has been in the opening credits since the series began;  but the background for this image connotes (but does not depict) the World Trade Center towers, thus suggesting an association with those who chose to jump from the burning towers as an alternative to an unknown, and possibly more horrific, death.  My guess is that the billboard was designed to spark controversy.  The question is what sort of controversy was anticipated.

Did AMC, for example, anticipate the following statement from Nancy Nee, sister of one of the firefighters who perished on 9/11?

It seems that Hollywood, and now advertising, doesn’t care about the sensitivities of the families and New Yorkers.

With all due respect to Nee, I would posit that the advertising industry, as well as most Hollywood production companies (which, as we know from Morgan Spurlock’s recent documentary, are basically run to serve the advertising industry) do care about personal sensitivities.  If they did not care, they would not be succeed in flogging stuff for their clients;  and, following the logic of Darwinian selection, they would not remain in business very long.  The same would hold for product placement strategies in both films and television programs.

What Nee has failed to recognize is that caring is a statistical matter.  No matter what you do, there will be some statistical distribution of those whose attention is attracted, those who are offended, and those who do not react very much one way or the other.  What the advertising industry needs to recognize in order to survive is whether the statistics of those who are offended are significant enough to outweigh those on whom the idea registers in a positive way.  In other words Nee has been unpleasantly confronted with her own statistical insignificance, an insignificance that seems to have been reinforced (perhaps even more unpleasantly) by the get-over-it comments and exchanges attached to Rahim’s article.

Personally, I sympathize with Nee.  However, my sympathy is grounded on the many frustrations I encounter when I am confronted with my own statistical insignificance.  In a way the Internet has reduced us all to such insignificance, even if we are not explicitly aware of it.  Indeed, the comments to Rahim’s article make it clear how good so many of are at denying that insignificance, even if it involves reacting to evidence to the contrary through rage.

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