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The Medium is the Message: A Simple Reality in a Complex World

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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.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Cannonshop

    I think Mcluhan had the brilliance to state the obvious-which is often overlooked.

    People are visual creatures, we see in stereoscopic colour (well, unless you’re colourblind), and we derive our responses from what we’ve been trained/raised/conditioned to expect.

  • What Cannon said. It’s a primal survival mechanism. A herd of gazelle on a wide, grassy plain would have been a thrilling sight to our remote ancestors; but a single gazelle trapped in a narrow canyon might have been left there by the tribe over the hill in the hope of luring you into a trap.

    A prime example of what Cannon is talking about is the War on Drugs, which to me is so obviously a massively stupid, wasteful and ultimately pointless effort that has created far more human suffering than it supposedly aims to prevent… but which most people don’t even question.

    I used to think the same way. Somehow I broke my conditioning. I can’t remember exactly how or when, but I have a feeling it may have been after I read a series of leaflets published by a drug counseling center in London that were written in a way that was entirely informative and non-judgmental. I’d never seen anything like that before and it got me thinking.

    So, how do you get people to recognize and question their conditioning (to “think outside the box”)… and is that also conditioning?


  • Cannonshop

    #2 I have a hypothesis, that if you teach people to be skeptical, it goes a long way toward either preventing or breaking mass conditioning.

    Which may be a reason they’re not taught to question, but rather, to accept what they’re told, esp. by celebrities.

  • Only a few people will be leaders, and most of the rest will be followers. Don’t forget that the average IQ is probably a couple standard deviations lower than those here who bemoan the lack of critical thought in the general population.

    What’s needed is creative, conscientious leaders who have worthwhile ideas. They will not hold those who look to them for leadership with derision. They’ll inspire them to direct the energy (that less noble leaders may have exploited for personal gain) toward making those visions a reality.