The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Hysteria as a marketing tool

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting

“Gimme some noise!” screamed a young pony-tailed man on the stage, punching the air with one fist while he held a radio-mike to his mouth and his scream, amplified by 40,000 watts of power, drowned us all in the sound, while behind him a demented drummer shook the earth with a frenzied beat. The audience consisted of schoolchildren who were there to watch a Western music competition, in which children from different schools competed to win prizes for singing and for presenting songs as a band, with instruments and singers. Why I, of all people, was there is a complicated story which I won’t go into here. But I was there. Hence this account.

“You’re not making enough noise!!” screamed the second young man on stage, deafening those of the audience who didn’t have their fingers in their ears. The children shouted bravely, but they didn’t have 40,000 watts of power so it sounded rather ragged. “More!!” screamed Pony-tail, leaping across the stage in what looked like ungovernable rage. The children shouted again, and waved little silver stars, then put up banners, in which some of the smaller children got entangled, extolling the virtues of a soft drink. What they were shouting was difficult to comprehend, but they were shouting in earnest.

Finally Pony-tail announced, “You’re really pumped up, so let’s go!!” and accompanied by wails and shouts from the children the singing got under way. Astonishingly, some of the children, either accompanying their singing themselves on guitars or synthesizers, or with a friend doing it for them, sang beautifully, and some among them had truly lovely, sweet voices. Many of the songs were old, familiar ones which even I knew and had in my time listened to with much joy. The trouble was that in between, Pony-tail and his friend kept screaming at the children, asking them if they were “pumped up” (whatever that means) and did they want to rock and roll, to which the children dutifully shouted “Yeess!”. But as they did that, I noticed once again two boys, around 11 or 12 years old, standing in the crowd and while they were shouting, they looked wide-eyed around them and then fell silent.

Other children were doing the same; watching it all, from the sidelines, as it were, then shouting with the others when it seemed obligatory for them to do so. And finally it dawned on me just what Pony-tail and his friend were up to. They were trying to induce some kind of mass hysteria — of the kind that one reads about, “gigs” and “raves” or whatever they’re called that happen in the West. It’s what seems to have become an essential adjunct to the horrendously loud music that pours out of gigantic speakers through amplifiers that look like the bridge of the starship Enterprise. The music isn’t enough, it needs hysteria to go with it — only then, apparently, is the “experience” complete.

The ones being bludgeoned into such a state at this event I was sitting in on didn’t really seem to be enjoying what was being done to them, being pummelled half-conscious by ear-splitting sounds and the occasional risqué remarks about certain body parts. Not that they didn’t understand it, but it seemed to me, sitting right there among them, that they didn’t react at all. They joined in the shouting but clearly as they had been rehearsed to do; and the risqué comments were listened to without any reaction.

Behind all this are a bunch of marketing executives, lips pursed, eyes narrowed as they bring their market savvy to bear on how best to sell their product to these children. And since a number of them — the ones that matter — have MBAs and other such degrees from America, they import techniques, gimmicks and strategies that have worked with American children and let them loose on the hapless kids here. Do our children need to have Pony-tail screech “Gimme some noise!!” at them' Where has Pony-tail learnt to do that, and his other lines, such as “And, hey, let’s have a reeaal parrty, whadya say'” We know where; from hours of listening to tapes and watching videos of several American “gigs” and “blasts”, and painfully learning the words and the accents, and faithfully copying the movements, the gyrations.

Now, if they want to do it, fine. That’s their business. People want to go to see and listen to them, fine. But is it really necessary to take children in school buses to these gigs and raves, where no effort is spared to whip them up into a hysterical frenzy so that they’re screaming like demented animals' The children I saw did not get hysterical, despite the frantic efforts of Pony-tail and his friend; they shouted all right, but because it was expected of them. They were enthusiastic, true; they were keen that their school representatives should win, and cheered them. But no hysteria, no frenzy. Pony-tail must have wept with rage afterwards. All that effort for nothing. Our children held out. But next time'

I’m not for a minute climbing on to the bandwagon of Our Ancient And Glorious Traditions; cultures coalesce, meld into each other, re-appear in different forms, and this will happen whatever we may say or do. I’m only asking why it seems necessary for our marketing whizkids to use hysteria as a marketing tool. Some of them may not know it, but if they read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, they will see how effectively hysteria is used by the young woman, Abigail Williams. This is an example:

“Abigail: (screaming up at the ceiling) You will not! Begone! Begone, I say! (Abigail is now raising her frightened eyes, her awed face, to the ceiling — the girls are doing the same….She is transfixed, with all the girls she is whimpering, open-mouthed, agape at the ceiling) Why' Why do you come, yellow bird'

Proctor: Where’s a bird' I see no bird!

Abigail: (to the ceiling) My face — ' My face — '

Abigail: (in a genuine conversation with the ‘bird’ as though trying to talk it out of attacking her) But God made my face, you cannot want to tear my face!

Proctor: (frantically) They’re pretending, Mr. Danforth!”

These sleek MBAs could learn a thing or two from Abigail Williams. (Oh, of course, they could just as easily see the film, with Winona Ryder as Abigail. It would save them the effort of reading the play.)

Abigail used hysteria for her own evil purposes, and these purveyors of soft drinks use it to sell their products. But it works, as Abigail could have told them, only for a time. And in the process you’ve tampered with the minds of children. That is what is of concern. The whizkids will pass, the products will pass; but the damage to the perceptions and sensibilities of children may twist and distort not just them but the generations that follow them. Can our marketing strategists live with that' Silly question — of course they can.

But someone should tell the children what’s going on. They may be subjected to much more of such frenzied attempts to get them to imitate the combination of sound and hysteria that America has invented, and they may like it and accept it enthusiastically. That’s all right, so long as they know what’s being done to them. That knowledge is all they can be given; but it is enough.

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