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.