Brian Donohue The electronic imagination

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Media has a very powerful impact on people, which is the reason its advantages and disadvantages are discussed so very often. With every new technology entering our world, we start wondering just how this would later impact our society, culture, consumer market etc. This is because every medium brings along a message and while we believe that message is more important, some social critics maintain it is the medium, which was more powerful than the message itself. Neil Postman admittedly based his book, Amusing ourselves to Death” on the aphorism. ‘Medium is the message’ which was coined by media expert Marshall McLuhan in 1959. In his book Medium is the Message (1967), he wrote, “The medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content and uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” (43)

Neil Postman expanded this concept to bring in his own original observations regarding the role of Television in our lives and especially in the way it makes us perceive issues, commodities, people and even countries. Medium thus becomes more important than the message itself. It is a very interesting concept, which should be explored in depth in order to understand how contents of a message gain a subservient role in its clash with the medium. Postman has used this concept to illustrate the influence of Television on our perceptions and introduces an interesting concept whereby he declares American Television to be nothing but entertainment alone. He believes that the way we present information on American television breeds more ignorance as it turns important issues into nothing but entertainment. Postman writes, “There is no question but that the best photography in the world is presently seen on television commercials. American television, in other words, is devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment…. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining…” (Pg. 90)

After making it clear that television has a huge impact on our lives, the author goes to on to argue that product endorsement by celebrities can often do wonders for the product itself. When we see a celebrity opting for a certain commodity, we automatically associate the product with success, urging us to buy it and enhance our self-esteem. Knowledge has thus taken a back seat as American communicate with each other through well crafted images, that are designed to attract viewers by focusing on aesthetics. “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” (Pg. 92)

That doesn’t make world a very serious place if everything that happens here is a form of entertainment. While celebrities may do wonders for the popularity and sales of a product, they can seriously hurt the importance or gravity of a matter simply by becoming a part of it. For example, imagine David Beckham who is a super hero of the soccer world. He is associated with everything trendy, cool and unpredictable. Our sports icon has been considered one of the most dashing personalities to grace our television screens and our football stadiums. You watch him almost every day, bending football in his unique style and then in his hyper cool style, responding to the cheers of the crowd. Suddenly he appears on your television screen one day to protest against Iraq war. You are left confused and disoriented. What to make of this sudden transformation, how to make your mind connect an extremely popularity sports person with a highly grave political matter. Suddenly it transforms that subject of international importance into nothing but pure entertainment. It makes you take Iraq war less seriously because your mind cannot associate Beckham with a burning political issue. This is the way celebrities cab turn important debate into insignificant problems and that surely is a way to insult your intelligence. Wouldn’t you consider this highly hypocritical when someone who has apparently never cared about anything political to turn up on your screen and endorse a political debate.

Postman writes, “Imagine what you would think of me, and this book, if I were to pause here…and then proceed to write a few words in behalf of United Airlines or the Chase Manhattan Bank. You would rightly think that I had no respect for you. (p. 104)

While McLuhan was mainly concerned with the impact of technology on our sense, Postman wonders how technology might affect discourse and intellect. It is one thing to see technology influencing and shaping our cultures; it is another to let it destroy our ability to argue a certain issue. Television does just that-it kills our thinking faculties by letting images make our decisions for us. When celebrities endorse products, they make it clear that if they can use this commodity, we would be fools not to do the same. This advertisers of every type whether commercial or political would use famous faces to make us stop thinking and immediately support or reject a certain product or political agenda. Postman differs from other social critics of the past because instead of connecting technology with senses alone, he also investigates the impact of technology on discourse.

Lance Strate (1994) explains, “McLuhan focuses on the relationship between technology and the senses, arguing that after five hundred years of eye dominance through typography, television has restored the ear to its previously held position of superiority…. Postman, on the other hand, is concerned with the relationship between technology and discourse. Consequently, while he acknowledges the distinction between orality and literacy, he often focuses on what is common to all forms of language; he is a defender of the word, not just the printed word, but also the handwritten word and the spoken word. For him, the eloquence of print culture is rooted in a balance between what is read and what is said. This balance has now been upset by televisual discourse, which shifts the emphasis from verbal to visual forms of communication.”

The most important purpose behind hiring celebrities to promote a product or agenda is minimization of thinking. In other words, celebrities are used to make it easier for us to stop applying our own logic and reason. If they endorse a product, we must do so too and 4 similarly if they favor one specific side of political debate, then how we dare not follow suit. This way, advertisers can suppress our thinking faculties and make decisions for us. Brian Donohue (2002), “It is easy to see why. For our fast-paced world, obsessed with instant gratification, the earnest attempt to reflect and observe is far too time consuming and the results are far too complicated. TV reporters and commentators have responded by reducing reality to the buzz of the moment.”

Since we might not listen to an ordinary model, advertisers need more famous faces to quickly raise the popularity graph of their products. Secondly, with celebrities endorsing a product, it doesn’t even need a message or any significant slogan. Beckham uses Adidas products so they must be good. Similarly if Pete Sampras sports Nike shoes and shirts, then Nike is “the” brand. You don’t even need to convince yourself of its quality because the celebrities who endorse these products are symbols themselves.

Television provides a new (or, possibly, restores an old) definition of truth: The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality- testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter.” (Pg. 101)

Postman’s arguments are grounded in historical transformation of American culture and the role played by media in this revolution. His close analysis of product endorsement and use of celebrities in advertising gives a unique insight into the way television shapes our decisions and control our thoughts. However some critics believe that Postman’s arguments have gone a little too far and thus lack plausibility. James Davison Hunter writes, “[Postman’s arguments deserve] admiration, even if a number of his contentions must be questioned… My feeling is that there may be more universality here than meets the medium… But to assume this to the degree that Postman does is to verge close to cultural determinism.” (166)

But Hunter fails to understand that Postman’s arguments are not based on his views and opinions alone, they are supported by adequate examples and even our own experience with television and advertisements make it clear that Postman’s arguments are right in target. Whether his contentions are grounded in cultural determinism or not is open to debate, however it is clear that as far as his examination of television’s impact on our thinking is concerned, Postman’s findings are quite accurate. Spindler (1995) agrees with Postman and writes “Television is the medium that has so far made the most dramatic impact on our social structure. Cultures and even nations appear defenseless to its influence.” We know from experience that we take certain important subjects lightly only because a good looking people are used to comment on them. Similarly our choices of goods and services are heavily dependent on the way they are advertised. If a celebrity endorses it, we are more likely to opt for it too without really questioning its quality or utility.


Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” Penguin Books 1986

James Davison Hunter: Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Publisher: Basic Books. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1991.

Brian Donohue The electronic imagination: requiem for a narrative: ETC — A Review of General Semantics. Volume: 59. Issue: 4. Publication Year: 2002.

Lance Strate: Post (modern)man, or Neil Postman as a postmodernist. ETC.: A Review of General Semantics. Volume: 51. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 1994.

Marshall, McLuhan, Medium is the Message, 1967

Spindler, Michael H., Taking the message back from the medium.(After the Media Class). Vol. 12, New Perspectives Quarterly, 03-22-1995, pp 48(3).

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