Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Martians Have Landed

Are we, the general public, gullible or well-informed? How do we know the difference? Our level of trust in the source of information has a lot to do with whether or not we believe what we are told. If an apparently trustworthy person, brand or medium supplies us with information as truth, are we being gullible if we follow the masses that believe without question, or should we take a closer look at exactly who, or what, is behind the message we are being given?

Take the case of suburban housewife Janet Elford. She has gone down in UK history as the victim of one of the nation’s favorite TV pranks, which culminated in her singing to what she believed were aliens in her garden. Janet was taken in hook, line and sinker, when London Weekend Television, which produced “Beadle’s About” between 1986 and 1996, went to extraordinary measures to convince her that aliens had actually landed in her back garden. LWT enlisted the help of both the local policeman, whom Janet knew and trusted absolutely, and the local fire brigade. It was then easy, if expensive, for LWT to arrange a national news anchor man and numerous TV news crews to appear to cover the story. Who could blame Janet for believing what they were all telling her, especially when she was literally under the spotlight? A nation laughed at Janet’s expense, although she was very good-humored about the whole episode.

On this side of the pond, the opposite of this situation occurred in 1938, when one individual took great delight in fooling millions of people. Orson Welles used his magnificent powers to persuade the CBS radio network to let him broadcast a play over their airwaves. Not only that, he also persuaded them to broadcast it on Halloween. The play was an adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G.Wells, and was about faceless Martians invading Earth and killing all in their path. Orson Welles understood the value of timing, executing his prank when people were already excited about the Halloween holiday and edgy about the situation in Europe in the build-up to WW2. Orson Welles was a master of the dramatic (some say the master of the dramatic) because he knew that his audience was already nervous and he capitalised on it. He brought his audience to fever pitch almost immediately by seeming to interrupt a regular radio show with an “urgent newsflash” to announce that Martians had landed on US soil. The whole event caused such disruption that it resulted in the introduction of new laws to control how news was delivered to the general public. It was a home run for our hero, Orson Welles, though.

Whatever you believe, someone is probably thinking how gullible you must be. Possibly you’re thinking the same about them.

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