"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 31 January 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Blowing Smoke



Public space provides some

opportunities to do things that

we don't really seem to want to

do anymore: observe and interact

with a diverse group of other

people, engage the energy of a

crowd, share common interests

with people outside our

immediate circle of

acquaintance, lift wallets from

the rear pockets of the elderly

and the infirm, pursue

short-term sexual relationships

with gullible teenagers. And the

declining popularity of

Underground Atlanta would seem

to reflect this pretty clearly.

During the last few years,

several different ideas have

floated around the circle of

people who share an interest in

reviving the city-supported

downtown retail center. The

partnership that owns the

subterranean mall has suggested

turning part of it into a large

jewelry district, while previous

management thought an aquarium

would bring new crowds. But finally,

an idea has popped to the top of

the list: Underground Atlanta,

the argument goes, can best

break through the habitual

isolation of a media-drenched

culture that keeps people

planted at home in front of

their televisions by hanging

televisions all over the place.


The proposed changes, reports

the Atlanta Constitution, "would

include enclosing the Kenny's

Alley section with an arch and

adding a giant television on one

end. Another 100 TVs would be

scattered throughout

restaurants, nightclubs, and

common areas." The fountain

plaza, of course, is the perfect

place for the 26-foot poppa TV,

so long as the sound of all that

running water doesn't drown out

the witty banter of our favorite

Third Rock reruns.


Faced with the alternative of

dating or talking to friends and

family in silence, who among us

wouldn't welcome increased

access to Mariah Carey videos

and Bob Saget's reassuring

smile? But one question remains:

What took them so long? Turner

Private Networks — note the

culpability of Georgians in our

long national decline —

already operates the dreadful

MillsTV, a special programming

venture that provides

distraction from human

interaction in eight other

shopping malls. And just in case

you miss your mall TV, there are

roughly 6 billion other places

where you can indulge your love

of the idiot box, thanks to the

Turner-owned Airport Network,

the College Television Network,

and the medical-


AccentHealth Network. Why people

sitting in a doctor's waiting

room would want to turn their

attention from those 8-year-old

issues of Popular Mechanics is

beyond us.



And this is still just the

beginning of the list, as Mark

Laswell recently reported in The

Wall Street Journal; television

has arrived in hotel elevators,

restaurant bathrooms ("So I was

taking a dump at the Hilton the

other day, and I saw this really

neat Hitler documentary on The

History Channel...."), and —

you already know this part —

the 12,000 classrooms putatively

"served" by Channel One. Several

airlines are developing

real-time in-flight television

viewing technology; General

Motors is working on a way to

allow millions of drivers to

tune in behind the wheel,

supplementing cell phone use as

a good way to unintentionally

park your front wheels on top of

the neighbor's toddler. ("The

huge question," a GM executive

tells Laswell, "is how you do

that without taking the driver

and distracting them.")


The easy temptation here —

often yielded to by John

Leo/Dennis Prager–league

commentators — is to

fulminate about the demonic,

soul-draining power of the

irresistible hypnosis machine

that captures our hapless

attention with enrapturing

broadcasts of Pokémon

episodes and the sheer dazzle of

Rosie O'Donnell. But there's

something else in there,

something kind of strange and

quite a bit larger than the

growing ubiquity of ass-sucking

television garbage.


Because one unintended side

effect of universal TV

encroachment is the shifting of

strong messages to innovative

new forms of media. Clever

Canadians have at long last

found a way to let people know

that smoking is unhealthy. That

quirky nation's parliament is

exploring the possibility of

requiring cigarette

manufacturers to place a

photograph of a tobacco-caused

tumor or diseased lung on every

pack. "Today, when reporters

showed mock-up packs to high

school students," The New York

Times deadpans, "several

described the packs as 'gross.'"

The Canadian government has

already inflicted images of

cancer sufferers on its subjects

by way of television and

billboards, but the plan to

paste pictures on packages

indicates both a disturbing

familiarity with the ravings of

Dennis Leary and a stubborn

refusal to get Leary's point.



"Two billion packs are sold in

Canada every year," one

hyperborean health official

explains, probably counting on

his fingers. "Twenty-five to 30

times a day, those packs come

out of the shirt pocket or the

purse, and they sit on the dash,

on the coffee table. Counting

each time the packs come out,

the packs are responsible

for 50 to 60 billion

advertising impressions a year."

Every time you reach into the

fruit bin, you see, you're

creating an advertising

impression for the citrus



Like most government schemes,

the Canadian anti-cigarette

brainstorm misses a few other

points. First, of course,

cigarette smoking is cool, all

your friends are doing it, and

smoking will help you to have a

gratifying sex life with some

really, really hot Abercrombie &

Fitch models. But then, too,

there's this part, again

reported by the Times: "All

fall, Canadian television aired

tough, made-in-Massachusetts

anti-smoking messages, including

one showing the image of a

smoking girl paired with the

image of an elderly woman on a

hospital lung machine." Because

the best way to convince a

15-year-old not to do something

is to tell her that it might

make her sick in 60 years.

Finally someone has figured out

that teenagers are obsessed with

the far-off future, with what

their lives will be like after

they've churned through four or

five more of the lifetimes

they've had so far.



One last problem with this

effort to say something

important: The Canadian

government achieved measurable

success, in reducing smoking

— and particularly in

reducing teenage smoking —

back when it eschewed

post-ironic message-sending in

favor of simply taxing people

(the one activity at which

Ottawa has always excelled). In

1994, the Canadian government

was taxing cigarettes like mad,

but smugglers were selling an

estimated one-third of all

cigarettes in the eastern half

of the country. So the

government dropped taxes by the

equivalent of US$14 a carton,

anxious to recapture the revenue

being lost to black market

cigarettes. As the Times

reports, cigarette consumption

among 12- to 18-year-olds

quickly increased from 24

percent to 28 percent as

cigarettes became easier and

less expensive to buy. In

contrast, 18 percent of American

teenagers smoke. So a measure

that achieves tangible success

isn't worth pursuing, because it

costs something. The cost of a

bunch of dreamy scare tactics,

on the other hand, can be handed

off. And what if it really works

and cigarette consumption begins

to fall radically, taking

cigarette tax revenue down with

it? Well, some things are worth



Thus, in its spunky way, Canada

again provides a lesson for

responsible people everywhere.

When you put your money where

somebody else's mouth is, you

send a strong message —

stronger, in fact, than any

number of cleverly devised ad

impressions. But then, if we

were willing to take any real

action, we wouldn't need all

those TVs.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers
picturesTerry Colon