Marshall, Will and Holly Sell Some Routine Tobacco Products

I’ve been talking a lot lately about the mismatch between levels or scales of social action and social knowledge. Mostly I think that’s a question that involves the design and organization of institutions, governments, and social networks.

Sometimes, though, it’s a lot simpler: it’s a big organization that doesn’t know what the hell it’s talking about and thus being all thumbs when it sets out to act. Case in point: the American Medical Association has a group that looks on an annual basis at the representation of smoking in the movies. The report uses standard media effects analysis, which is to say that it already starts with a lamentably crude understanding of what culture is and how it works.

It’s not wrong to say that Humphrey Bogart’s films helped give smoking a stylish, beautiful image at an earlier moment in American life, for example. That was then, though: films which helped give smoking an embedded attraction did their work within a time and place, and they did their work subtly, even when the message was not at all subtle (as, for example, in early television advertising for cigarettes).

Today? Well, the AMA report names the film Land of the Lost as the chief menace seducing the nation’s youth to the vile ways of tobacco. Land of the Lost. The biggest flop of the summer. Featuring a Will Ferrell character who is a pompous professorial ass. Who smokes a pipe as a sign of his pomposity. Why is the film the No. 1 cultural villain? Because you multiply the number of times smoking appears in a film by the number of people who saw it and the number tells you how many people’s minds had impressions of smoking ground into them.

It doesn’t matter if the film was a flop or critically reviled. It doesn’t matter if Dr. Rick Marshall is very nearly the utter opposite of Sam Spade in every imaginable respect. It doesn’t matter what culture means or how it works. A simple multiplication saves you from having to deal with anything messy or complicated. Number of representations times number of ticket sales. It’s science, I tell you, science.

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4 Responses to Marshall, Will and Holly Sell Some Routine Tobacco Products

  1. Carl says:

    Oh, dear. Well, I’ll certainly stay away from that movie, since the last thing I need is to ruin my life with pipe smoking. As well I know from my dad, who has smoked and carved his own pipes my whole life long.

    So glad to have science vigilant against the nefarious hegemony of popular culture.

  2. G. Weaire says:

    “…saves you from having to deal with anything messy or complicated.”

    Bit more to it than that, I think. Arguing from statistics to harm enables the AMA to fight on rhetorical turf where it enjoys a presumption of credibility. Complex, nuanced, close readings about context are an area where the filmmakers have the upper hand from the get-go.

    I suspect that there may also be ideological blinders here – the AMA normally operates in contexts where statistical ammunition is an absolute necessity.

  3. hwc says:

    Not to argue on behalf the AMA, but the tobacco companies know very well that substantially all nicotine addicts become addicted as teenagers (or earlier). The marketing of nicotine to young people continues, through vehicles such as product placement in movies and music videos and the astroturf marketing of youth-targeted nicotine products such as hooka, flavored cigarillos, e-cigarettes, and snus. After some period of decline, the percentage of young people using, and therefore addicted to, nicotine is again on the rise.

    So, I’m probaby inclined to grant a little leeway if the researchers fingered the wrong movie. The tobaccco companies didn’t know a Will Farrell movie would be a flop when they did the product placement deal, but they almost certainly knew the target audience of Will Farrell movies. It’s not pipe smoking college professors.

  4. David Chudzicki says:

    I’m not exactly sure how we would find out, but you really think the pipe-smoking in that movie is the result of a product placement deal?

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