Orson Welles: The Master Manipulator of the Masses
By Richard Fusco
There can be no other important cultural figure than Kane in defining the business of media and Madison Avenue. Over the next three business days, as a toast to Advertising Week; now that most of us are back at our desks or more in touch with our PDA's, we take the pleasure of sharing with you three essays which illuminate our proposition.
One of our most celebrated cultural possessions, "ROSEBUD" is in the hands of Steven Spielberg. Though neither he nor anyone else will ever really "own" it, as it mythologizes the slippery slope roller-coaster thrill of Kane's unconscious imagination, and more importantly, our own.
October 30, 1938...families across America sat down comfortably in the homes. They are focused on the home entertainment center, the radio. It's 8:00PM and time for the Mercury Theater of the Air, a weekly program that featured plays directed by and often starring Orson Welles. That evening, he began his incredible folly with:
"Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News."
The plays on Mercury Theater of the Air were always well acted and often had an interesting, unexpected twist that Welles would work in. This particular night Welles twisted the show like a pretzel and showed a powerful new side to broadcasting…manipulation of the masses.
Welles was extremely media savvy. He understood that radio audiences of that era were convinced Amos and Andy were two black men and that Charlie McCarthy and his various friends were real people. Through the listening experience created by the voices and sound effects, Welles knew that if he could get them into the story and make them part of it that images could be impressed in the minds of those listening. The listeners would suspend their own belief systems and accept these made-up images as real.
Welles created a new version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds for that night's program and made it sound real. Under his direction the play was written and performed so it would sound exactly like a news broadcast and a first-hand account about an invasion from Mars right here in the U.S.
Most presume that he used the technique to heighten the dramatic effect. I am convinced that he intentionally created this program for the sole purpose of proving that media can be used to manipulate mass consciousness. He accomplished this manipulation by bringing the program directly into the lives of the listeners and bringing the listeners directly into the program thus creating a powerful emotional bond between the program and audience. This strong emotional bond opened the door to trust and acceptance and Wells just strolled on in.
Let's go back to that comfortable living room. After a short introduction from Orson Wells, our family's ears are turned to the radio as they hear…
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza Hotel in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. With a touch of the Spanish, Ramon Raquello leads off with "La Cumparsita" into the music. Welles sets up a perfectly normal, acceptable situation.
Then out of nowhere..."Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News." It's a nondescript announcement about observations of activity on the surface of the planet Mars. No big deal.
Back to music...then back with another announcement this time with a bit more detail and an expert who begins throw out some true facts about Mars. Welles baits the hook.
Back to music. Back to news. Now there is talk of a meteor hitting the U.S. in New Jersey. The tone of the announcer's voice is getting more intense. It's all newscast now live from the scene of the meteor hit. After an eyewitness account and another interview with the expert, the announcer cuts in...
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed... Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or... something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be..."
A collected cry of awe from the crowd at the scene in perfect unison with a gasp from the listening audience at home and Welles has sunk the hook in. Back to the newscast...
"Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another one, and another one! They look like tentacles to me. I can see the thing's body now. It's large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it... Ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, so awful."
Brilliant, Welles, brilliant!!! You've got them. Now reel them in.
By 8:20PM a significant portion of the audience believes this is an actual invasion from Mars. People jump in their cars and hit the roads. Others hid in basements, loaded their guns, and even wrapped their heads in wet towels to protect themselves from poison Martian gas. Welles has gotten the listeners to act out the role of the panic-stricken public that actually belonged in a radio play. He has succeeded in getting the audience to suspend their belief system and accept this fictional radio play as reality. Welles has got them in the net and in the boat.
New York Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson commented that the broadcast revealed the way politicians could use the power of mass communications to create theatrical illusions, to manipulate the public.
"All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time. They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.
They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery. Hitler managed to scare all of Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words. But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all."
Fast forward. Amendments have been passed and laws repealed that not only allows massive media consolidation but also frees broadcast radio and TV from providing equal time for opposing viewpoints. Those that control the media control the content and can essentially create what is reality for the masses. They have the ability to create images that are perceived as real using a similar technique to the one that made the War of the Worlds radio broadcast so effective.
We see examples of Welles' use of the media today, by our politicians, our marketers, our publishers and even personally, by our bloggers. Yet we all need to be careful and learn from his own personal media and career experience Though his actions exemplified the power of media and how it can be manipulated, the irony of his highest achievement, that of a media icon indicted in the Citizen Kane film, ultimately destroyed his prominent position on the Hollywood and media stage. His manipulation essentially manipulated his own power.
Advertising Week draws on the power of the written, spoken or visual word, yet if we only see the blue sky, we will not be prepared for cloudy skies. Advertising and "political framing" are all based on deciding that a certain positioning will win the day. Yet, if that were true, every brand and every politician would win the day. In many ways, we are all guilty of using the same basic techniques to create a false consumer reality. Media dictates what is cool, hot, sexy, how to get the girl or win over your boss and advertising tells you how to get there and that if you don't (fear) you will not be cool, hot or sexy, not get the girl and lose your job.
New media options have brought advertising to the crossroads and enable it to evolve beyond fear-based manipulation of the masses, media hoaxes and creating a false reality for consumers. Belief in the quality of the products, services and ideas we sell with media should be based in part a truthful presentation of the invitation messages offer consumers. However, more importantly, as compared to Welles, we also must be aware that an objective analysis of the *ROSEBUD* in each of us, defines the outcome from the top of the hill. We must be careful not to use our "Sleigh" to "Slay."