Marshall McLuhan was a revolutionary. Though few outside of select academic circles are able to recognize the Canadian scholar, critic, theorist, and philosopher by name, we owe virtually every development in modern media theory to him. Aside from predicting the advent of the Internet roughly thirty years before it became a reality, he coined the famous phrase “The medium is the message” in his 1964 bestseller, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Ever since, this fundamental insight to the process of advertising has guided strategists from Madison Avenue marketing giants to family owned stores on Main Street in presenting their products persuasively.
Considering this, McLuhan’s aphorism should be regarded as one of the most practical in popular vernacular. Obviously, if one is served a steak dinner cooked to perfection on a garbage lid instead of fine china, one will certainly be repulsed. That the dinner itself is excellent is of no consequence; the first impression has been made, and a hungry stomach turned into a nauseated one. Indeed, for a vast majority of people, perception simply is reality.
Perhaps in a more socially pertinent fashion, McLuhan’s medium/message connection can be seen in the political arena. For example, throughout the 2008 election cycle, when President Barack Obama spoke about economic inequality in the capitalistic American economy, he was jeered endlessly by right wing partisans. However, exactly four years later, when former House speaker Newt Gingrich used a similar argument against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the very same partisans cheered him on. How could this be? Simple: when Gingrich delivered his spiel, he did so from the self-described position of a hardcore Reaganite, and the aura derived from this was enough to convince those partisans to accept a position they otherwise would have found totally unacceptable.
In my own, thankfully, far more mundane day to day affairs, I find that I am treated with better service than most of the people around me at any given store. Why? Because I typically don a necktie and blazer, as well as a carefully folded pocket square. My appearance leads sales clerks, cashiers, and managers to assume that either I am likely to buy something expensive, or I have a professional demeanor to match my apparel and therefore will be pleasant to deal with. While the first assumption very rarely is the case, the second I try to make true at all times. So, the medium of a well dressed man carrying the message of a well tempered one plays out to everyone’s benefit.
Considering the monumental impact of McLuhan’s perspective, one might wonder why nobody crafted such a meme long before him. Could it be that someone did, but stated it in a considerably more nuanced way? Or was McLuhan’s being on the forefront of science and commentary just that? In either case, the lesson provided is sound: if one has something to sell or an idea to promote, style often eclipses substance. Whether this is good or bad is up for debate. I would argue the latter, but believe that rampant consumerism would lead most to disagree with me.
Then again, the medium is the message.