One of my happiest discoveries in graduate school was an article called "the limits of Elizabethan credulity," from which I learned that Elizabethans believed in ghosts, magic, alchemy and unicorns. (The last were, they believed, merely scarce.)
This article got me wondering about the line between credible and incredible in the present day, and in the last couple of days I have started to wonder whether "American credulity" is not shifting.
Borat pretends to being a documentary. Most of us are hip to the joke. We "get" that this is parodic, that Sasha Baron Cohen, the creator and star, is "just kidding."
But the anthropologist is a bore. He insists on asking:
1) what are the signals that tell us something is parodic?
2) who gets them?
3) do some people not get them?
4) how many people need to fail to get them before we may (or must) cry "hoax"?
Now, I know what you are thinking. You would actually have to be from Kazakhstan not to understand that Borat is a parody.
But what about these other examples? Sega did a campaign that pretended to be the diary of someone trying to "blow the whistle" on the dangerous properties of Sega game.
Mini USA released "actual footage" of a giant robot. The animation is really good, but what sold me on this hoax was the opening interview with a British engineer pottering about in his cardigan and his garden shed. Note perfect.
Alright, so I am from Kazakhstan. I only wish that MIT colleagues, Sam Ford and Ivan Askwith, had not been there to see me fall for it. (Very politely, they pretended not to notice the shocking elasticity of my credulity.)
The world is now filled with what we hope are note perfect confabulations. And the odd thing: we don’t much care. This used to be the job of the chattering classes: to police the difference between appearance and reality, between veritas and verisimilitude. Indeed, the 1990s seemed preoccupied with conspiracy with the Kennedy assassination and Roswell that were all about the possibility that some things were just appearances. If someone were to restage War of the Worlds, would there be the outcry, the indignation that greeted Orson Wells? I don’t think so.
What happened to the cry: Hoax!
Mini ads. These have disappeared from the internet without a trace. Anyone who can find them is urged to let me know.
The Sega ads here.
Post bonus: A Citroen ad that might have been a hoax except that we are way too canny. Or perhaps I am missing something. Thoughts here.