Sunday, October 27, 2013

Kayfabe, Political and Private

The fine art of kayfabe owes its roots to the traveling circus. Carnies and barkers would drum up interest in their attractions with a combination of preposterously over-inflated self-promotion coupled with ludicrous claims about the insufficiency of their rivals. Professional wrestling circuit managers took note of carnies' success in seizing the attention of rubes and polished the art, giving the world the peculiar theatrics that we can now watch LIVE ON PAY-PER-VIEW THIS SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY. We have our faces, our heels, our turns, and our corporate mischief, and it's tough to tell where the theatrics end and the actual skulduggery begins. And that's part of the draw.

The best thing about kayfabe? The audience is in on it. Rather, the audience can be in on it should they so choose. If they wish to maintain the willing suspension of disbelief, so be it. Either way, participation is entirely voluntary. You buys your ticket, you takes your ride. 

How about extensions of (private) kayfabe? Legislation regulating advertising have just enough bend in them to permit some puffery, though outright lies about the nature of the products offered and slander or libel about competitors' products is verboten. But the actual content of advertising? Is shampoo really the personal transformative it appears in commercials? Obviously not, as anyone who has washed her hair can attest. Do competitor products sink you in the mire of split ends and frizz? Probably no. Are you fooled by claims to the contrary? If so, not for long. People figure out pretty quickly that the dance played by advertisers and consumers is a minuet wherein one partner minces straight up to the edge of outright fraud and the other demurs, accepting partial truth in exchange for a cocktail of brand affiliation, risk aversion, and plain ol' instrumental value. Most of the time, it's close enough to euvoluntary that it makes no never you mind either way. 

Of course, not everyone agrees. Different strokes, I guess. & so on & so on and scooby-dooby-doo.

Contrast the voluntary dance in marketplace advertising with the compulsory dance in politics. Sure, you don't have to listen to politicians pontificate (and at the risk of a telling confession, I must say I go out of my way to avoid it--nails on a blackboard most of the time), but you do have to do the Washington two-step whether you like it or no, come hell, come The Flood. I fancy that the chief distinction, apart from compulsion, between private and public sloganeering lies in accountability. Pepsi Co retains a fiduciary duty to its shareholders to keep customers happy. Under Duverger's Law and the median voter theorem (sorry, I can't find an ungated copy of Black or Downs, so here's something by Congleton), actual party positions are nearly identical, only the speech is different. Variance is introduced only by heterogeneity in the constituency. And to the extent that people want to hear one thing and practice another, politicians cannot reasonably be expected to be held accountable for policy outcomes. More so perhaps for regulatory agencies whose activities are not salient to the median voter. Much more so when it seems as if people care more about the intent of a piece of legislation as captured in its title than its actual effects.

In commerce, advertisers can tell you that noxious body spray will attract hordes of women to your doorstep. You are free to believe that as is your wont. Should you not, no one forces you to purchase the product. In politics, speechwriters can tell you that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. You are free to believe that as is your wont. Should you not, your military will still be sent overseas regardless.

Private kayfabe can be a fun little diversion, play-acting for grown-ups who want to indulge in some mostly-harmless play-acting. It is a consensual act of capitalism. Political kayfabe is the masque held over an edifice of coercion. It is erroneous, dangerous even to conflate the two. I encourage you to learn the difference and to pass it on. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?