Friday, September 6, 2013

"Weird tricks" and a society always looking for shortcuts

I'm tired of these ads. You've seen them. Click here to learn this one "weird trick" to building muscle, losing weight, increasing your Social Security checks (yes, really), or pretty much anything else you can imagine. Weird tricks to end diseases, to have the sex organs of a porn star, to become a millionaire, they're all out there just waiting for one click of the mouse.

Alex Kaufman at Slate recently did an investigation into these "weird trick" ads, in order to see where they actually lead. In order to look into them, Kaufman used a second laptop--one that could later be wiped clean--and a prepaid debit card to prevent extensive fraud. What he discovered was that all of these ads led to videos. Long videos, where people engaged in baiting and promising a "shocking" revelation at the end:
The link brought up a video with no pause the button or status bar. A kindly voice began: “Prepare to be shocked.” I prepared myself. As “Lon” spoke, his words flashed simultaneously on the screen, PowerPoint-style. As soon as he started, Lon seemed fixated on convincing me to stay until the end. “This could be the most important video you ever watch,” he promised. “Watch the entire video, as the end will surprise you!”

Every time Lon seemed about to get to the spicy heart of the matter, he’d go off on a tangent. This video wouldn’t stay on the Internet for long, he said.
If you watch the whole video, you do indeed get the promised "trick," some sort of herbal "blend" for the various health-related tricks, or a book/pamphlet for the others. For a fee, of course.

And apparently, these ads are effective to some extent, which is why we keep seeing and hearing more of them on the internet, on television, and on the radio. Those in the latter two mediums direct you to a website, of course. Even if you fail to buy the product at the end of the video, such ads are still likely effective, as a Chicago professor quoted by Kaufman notes:
There may be another reason for the length and shoddiness of the ads. “The point is not always to get the customer to buy the product,” Urminsky says. “It may be to vet the customer. Long videos can act as a sorting mechanism, a way to ‘qualify your prospects.’ Once you’ve established this is a person who’ll sit through anything, you can contact them by email later and sell them other products.”
Kaufman digs further into the psychology surrounding these ads, about why the word "weird" is being used, and how they play well with the conspiracy-minded, but there's more to say here, I think. For this idea of a simple trick or maneuver as a means of getting a huge reward is far more pervasive in our current culture than just with these ads and the gullible fringe.

Granted, such things are disproportionately focused on matters of self-worth and body image, where huckster after huckster (many of them well-funded) promises weight loss, sexy abs, superior sexual performance, or the like by using a supplement or a pill, doing a ten-minute "workout," or using some kind of special device or apparatus once a day. Many people--who are otherwise not of the fringy sort--have the latter such things now taking up space in their garage or closet, having been used for a week or two and never again. And many people have bottles full of special herbal blends, vitamins, or powders in the pantry or medicine chest. And these same people--of which I admit to being one--are willing to listen and maybe even investigate the next great "breakthrough" in this arena.

But the mindset goes much further, much deeper. After all, it's really what is at the root of the ridiculously large State lottery systems, a promise of huge results from minimal efforts. Then there are all the "work at home" and "networking" businesses people seem inclined to jump into. Again, promises of huge rewards with little effort. Internet "stores" as well.

In the meantime, education standards fall, government debt rises, and the size of the dependent class keeps growing. The latest employment figures are now out, showing a slight downward tick in the unemployment rate, but yet another drop in the labor force participation rate:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the August unemployment rate was 7.3 percent, down a tick from 7.4 percent in July. The worrisome part is why the rate fell. The size of the workforce declined by about 300,000 and the participation rate fell to 63.2 percent from 63.4 percent—the lowest since August 1978.
Lowest since 1978! We're quick to look at the economy as a whole, to blame the government's policies for this, but what about something more basic? What about the general attitudes of people in general? Many people get jobs, then lose jobs. Why? Because of a downturn in the economy or maybe, just perhaps, because they're not actually willing to put in a hard day's work, day after day? Ever walked into a business, looked for someone to assist you, and had to wait while they finished a personal phone call or a conversation with another employee that had nothing to do with work? Ever seen someone doing absolutely nothing at work when there was plenty to be done? Ever spent half the day on the internet when you actually had plenty of work to do, yourself?

Laziness is always a problem (the free rider problem, in economic terms). But it seems to me that this problem is being exacerbated by illusionary promises in various realms for huge returns after very little effort. The "weird trick" ads may have a specific marketing strategy behind them, but their current pervasiveness strikes me as emblematic of a much larger problem afflicting our society. There are historical reasons why Western Europe's economic growth outpaced that of the rest of the world, why such growth was most extensive in England and some other Northern European nations, why the United States picked up the mantle of that growth as well. Chief among these reasons was a new paradigm, deftly explored by Max Weber over one hundred years ago in his treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

But that work ethic Weber so ably described, with regard to both its origins and consequences, now seems to be very much in danger of disappearing, to be replaced by a sense of complacency and an unrealistic hope for betterment through luck or gimmick. And that's far more of a problem for the economy than anything emanating out of Washington, D.C.

Cheers, all.

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