virus: MEME UPDATE: To Censor Or Not?

Richard Brodie (
Mon, 9 Dec 1996 18:20:31 -0800

- Should we censor ads for tobacco and other harmful products?
- Book Review: Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins
- Movie Review: Mother Night
- Event calendar

This is Richard Brodie's Meme Central Newsletter. To
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"Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of questioning the wisdom of
the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, a tenet safely
lodged in most people's esteem somewhere above Motherhood and the right
to root for your favorite sports team. Somewhere in my study of
memetics, I came to the stunning but rational realization that tobacco
advertising might be causing a lot of unnecessary suffering in this

Is advertising effective at changing people's behavior -- specifically,
at getting them to buy where they wouldn't before? Decade after decade
and billion after billion spent on advertising tells me the answer must
be yes, as does the whole theory of memetics. Advertising works by
planting memes in your mind, or reinforcing ones already there. Without
the stimulus of ten or a hundred images of Coke daily, the soda drinker
might drift off to a competing brand. Those carefully engineered images
presented on our TV screens tell our reptilian brains that Coke is the
brand of the leader of the pack, who has all the power, the freedom, the

But we are smarter than that, aren't we? We are intelligent enough to
view a TV commercial and then decide for ourselves what to buy...aren't
we? Why all this fuss about advertising for harmful products, about
movies and programs depicting violence, about Beavis and Butt-Head
displaying moral decadence? Can't responsible people think for
themselves, and responsible parents guide their children, despite the
nightly memetic irradiation?

I would like to believe that we can think for ourselves. And yet, the
statistics show us that as a group we are sheep. Although from my point
of view I see myself taking in information, sorting through it, and
making my own choices, when we have a thousand of us or a million or
five billion, we behave predictably as a result of the advertisers'
influence. Studies show that when a high-profile suicide is reported,
for the next few days there is a predictable blip upward in the suicide
rate wherever the story was reported. And these are not just a clump of
suicides waiting to happen, triggered early by the news -- these are
EXTRA suicides, people who would not have taken their lives had not the
news story been reported.

So the same can be said for tobacco advertising. In the years since
television advertising for cigarettes was banned in the U.S., smoking
rates in this country dropped rapidly. But in the mid-'80s, as tobacco
companies found alternative methods of marketing, rates for the youngest
smokers began rising again. As more and more details come out in
congressional hearings, the ugly question is raised with surprising
courage by President Clinton: should we limit the freedom of speech of
tobacco companies by eliminating much of their ability to advertise?

Imagine if cigarettes could be sold only in plain white boxes with
"cigarettes" stamped on the box. No attractive packaging, no studly
Marlboro Man (who died a few years ago of smoking-related illness), and
certainly no child-enticing, rhinophallic Joe Camel. Would it make a
difference? I have to think so. Is it an unreasonable affront to our
freedom? That's a much more difficult question.
With any censorship, the ultimate question is "who decides?" While we
might be happy at first to see a "Harmful Products Advertising Act"
censoring tobacco and alcohol (and later other drugs as they are
inevitably legalized), what is to prevent the new government Department
of Censorship from declaring something YOU want to sell harmful? Look
the wrong way at the Assistant Censor General and I might find MEMETICS
suddenly declared too harmful to permit me to talk about it!

We must recognize the real effects of advertising in infecting the
populace with undesirable memes. But before censorship is used as a
memetic tool, we must be very sure we'll still be happy with the result
a century or two down the road.


Climbing Mount Improbable * *
by Richard Dawkins

The first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of
Science (yes, that's the same Charles Simonyi who's in my book) has
attempted to rise to his endowment's challenge by producing an entire
book about one metaphor. The metaphor of the mountain represents the
ability of Darwinian selection to produce complex, seemingly designed
things -- wispy heights that look unclimbable from one view but yield
themselves to garden paths on the other side with no Supreme Being
necessary. Will this book be accessible enough yet informative enough
for the "public" who don't yet grok evolution? I doubt it. While easy to
read, it pales beside his well-edited River Out of Eden.

Aficionados of Dawkins's previous books, rich with Darwinian analyses of
insect societies, will find the final chapter's fig-wasp story perhaps
the most satisfying part of a book somewhat more lightweight than the
rest. The constant use of the book's title metaphor gives rise to the
unintended conclusion that evolution is leading to higher and better
peaks. As Dawkins would agree, such is not the case. Dennett's Library
of Mendel analogy in his superb Darwin's Dangerous Idea works better for
me. And Dawkins let his ego show a bit more than necessary in this one,
unnecessarily detracting from his well-earned credibility.


Mother Night * * * 1/2

This brilliant retelling of the early Kurt Vonnegut book of the same
name (
encapsulates the life of a German-American playwright (meme-spinner)
recruited by the CIA's predecessor agency, the OSS, to become a Nazi
propagandist (memetic engineer) so that he can secretly broadcast
encoded messages (memes) woven into his scathingly anti-Semitic radio
addresses. Becoming as a character in one of his own nobly romantic
plays, he stakes all his future on the belief that nothing matters
except the "nation of two" formed by him and his beautiful young wife

What becomes of us when we live such an intricate lie that our friends
become our enemies and our enemies friends? Vonnegut always sums up the
point of his stories in plain language. "In the end," says central
character Howard W. Campbell, Jr., "we are what we pretend to be."


The next GETTING PAST OK evening workshop will be held on Thursday, Feb.
13 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Call Discover U at 443-0447 to register. Cost is
$29 plus $5 registration fee.

Thursday February 27, I will be giving the keynote address at the
American Society for Quality Control convention in Los Angeles.


If you're planning to get one or two dozen of your friends a copy of
VIRUS OF THE MIND for Christmas, I should warn you that supplies are
tight until the third printing (yea!) comes off the presses around the
first of the year, so if your bookstore has copies, pick them up early.
Amazon.Com also still has copies in stock.

THANK YOU for all your word-of-mouth recommendations!


All the best memes,


Richard Brodie +1.206.688.8600
CEO, Brodie Technology Group, Inc., Bellevue, WA, USA
Do you know what a "meme" is?