Day 14: They’re Changing the Conversation

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Matthew 23:27

“Mad Men” is one of the most acclaimed programs in television history, and it also boasted one of the greatest-ever pilot episodes. In that initial episode, titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” we meet the show’s main character, Don Draper, along with the other characters that populate the ad agency of Sterling Cooper. Throughout the episode, the agency is wrestling with a significant business problem – the public is becoming increasingly aware of the hazards of smoking. And Sterling Cooper’s largest client is Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Searching for a strategy that will help them continue to market cigarettes effectively, a research firm suggests that the agency appeal to people’s desire to take risks. Thus, cigarettes are seen as a product for people who wish to show that they have a perverse “death wish.” Draper, the agency’s Creative Director, dislikes this strategy, and he pitches the research file in the trash.

As ad execs and clients alike smoke continually in boardrooms and offices, the idea that tobacco causes lung cancer is waived away as nonsense. A Reader’s Digest story on the harm of cigarettes is scoffed at, and the publication is derided as a “women’s magazine.” Most of the ad men are sure the controversy will blow over; after all, in 1960 America, cigarettes are everywhere, and represent one of the country’s most vibrant industries. Surely nothing as modest as a single scientific study can change people’s habits and thinking, can it? Eventually, the clever Draper comes up with an alternate strategy. He suggests Lucky Strike go with a new tagline – “Lucky Strikes. It’s Toasted!” – which changes the conversation away from the danger of smoking, and instead shifts the focus to a minor product feature that subtly makes the cigarettes seem harmless.

The 21st century “Mad Men” viewers, of course, know better. We know that the 1960s was the beginning of an awareness of the harm caused by cigarette smoking, even if the characters can’t imagine it. And we also see in the admen’s self-interested disbelief some echoes of current issues, such as gun control or climate change, where people also refuse to believe that anything can be done, or that the scientific data belongs anywhere but in the trashcan. And we wonder if the next 50 years will also unfold in surprising ways on these issues just as they did for cigarette smoking.

And we also see the effectiveness with which powerful and clever people are able to change the conversation by re-directing our attention. We see that tendency today. Want to avoid discussion of climate change? Claim that former Vice President Al Gore and other environmental advocates are “hypocrites.” Uncomfortable with discussions of income inequality? Insist that the critics are practicing the politics of resentment, or that the poor have only themselves to blame. Or just avoid the issue altogether and run another gushing article on a celebrity’s glorious wealth.

Pray: For collective wisdom in the population, that we will understand when the conversation is being subtly but deliberately changed on issues of import.

Read: Matthew 23


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