The New Statesman Essay - Hype at the end of the tunnel

Hollywood uses it; so did the Nazis. Ziauddin Sardar on the world's most potent drug

Hype kills. Hype devastates societies. Hype strangles politics. Hype annihilates economies. Hype produces wealth for a few undeserving individuals while destroying the livelihoods of the vast majority. Hype has made lies - blatant, malicious lies - the foundation of civil society.

In times of war, the dangers of hype come more to the fore. Think of the hype surrounding the "smart bombs" that are supposed to be so accurate, we can target military installations with pinpoint accuracy and without killing civilians. But somehow the "smart bombs" are never smart enough in reality: they kill women and children, and our own allies, with mundane frequency, as we saw in the Gulf war and see again in Afghanistan.

But it is not just during wars that all sides lie as a matter of course. The underlying layers of our civilisation itself function on hype. The market operates on hype: stocks and shares soar on exuberant projections of potential riches, only to fall back to earth when reality sets in. Think of the dotcom bubble.

Technology evolves by perpetual hype: "must-have" technology is every child's inheritance, a mindset that creates the means for market saturation. The recent spectacular implosion of hi-tech companies, such as Marconi, and airlines, such as Sabena, will have to be the springboard for developing new techno toys - it's the only way this economy knows how to work, and the only hope the now superfluous labour force has of finding another job.

Hype is integral to science. Any discovery is immediately sold to us with visions of unlimited commercial applications, no matter how ridiculous or absurd. Headline-grabbing hype, persuading private companies and public bodies to part with their money, is what makes science possible; thus it determines what science gets done. Consider the hype surrounding the mapping of the human genome. It was sold as the answer to life, the universe and everything. But no sooner was the genome mapped than we were told that what really matters is not DNA but proteins. For all the hoopla, the potential cures and dividends are nowhere to be seen.

Hype is the stock-in-trade of the entertainment industry. The more execrable a Hollywood movie, the greater the hype. Think of the fanfaronade surrounding such banal films as Star Wars: the phantom menace and Pearl Harbor. Barry Norman, the doyen of British film critics, described the latter as "a classic example of hype gone mad". The film is "rubbish" and everyone involved in it knows it, but the purpose of hype, Norman says, is "to make people forget it's rubbish, leave their brains at home, and get to the cinemas early".

Yes, indeed, leave your brains at home. The first thing hype kills is the mind.

The origin of the word "hype" is not as straightforward as you may think. The obvious derivation is from "hyperbole", defined by dictionaries as "deliberate exaggeration used for effect". But "hype" is also American slang for a hypodermic syringe or injection. And hype indeed acts like a drug, under the influence of which people come to believe lies.

This point was first made by German intellectuals of the Frankfurt School, who argued that the media "injected" values, ideas and information directly into each individual. A largely passive and atomised audience swallowed the hype uncritically. Today, we tend to look down on such a "mechanistic" and "unsophisticated" model of the media-audience relationship. But members of the Frankfurt School - they included Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse - had seen at first hand the impact of hype in Nazi Germany. They knew it could transform a rational society into a murderous mob.

Indeed, hype achieves its goal largely by generating a mob mentality. Which brings us to the second thing that hype kills: reality. Hype manufactures an inversion of reality that is used to generate mass hysteria. The Third Reich presented the bogeymen of ancient fairy tales as though they were natural phenomena. It recycled the medieval blood libel against Judaism, depicting Jews as rats infesting German cities. It wrapped racism and other phobias in fashionable scientific theories such as eugenics. It converted the peace treaty that ended the First World War into a victimisation of the German people and an act of aggression against them. All this was packaged and sold with the practised skill of modern advertising executives, through all the media where advertising hype thrives: film, radio, newspapers. The synthesised cocktail was injected and it induced pathological hysteria. The pathology may vary but hysteria is the essence of all hype.

A more innocent proof that we are in no way immune to hype is The Blair Witch Project, one of the first films fully to exploit the internet's hype capabilities. New technology, same old strategy, same old hype. The film began by explaining that, in 1994, three student film-makers hiked into the Maryland woods to shoot a documentary about a local legend, the "Blair witch". They never returned. The film was supposedly based on footage from the documentary and from the team's video diary.

The producers went to incredible lengths to create a real-world legend of the Blair witch. An internet site manufactured background material, footage and photographs on its 200-year "history". Through colleges and universities, word spread that the film was based on a true story. When the film opened, students and young "experts" on the legend travelled hundreds of miles and queued for hours - generating a self-feeding frenzy that ensured that a laughably bad film was a runaway success.

On a less elaborate level, think of how the television show Pop Stars created the group Hear'say, whose "Pure and Simple" became the best-selling debut single of all time.

Tap into the psyche of a generation and watch hype work like crack cocaine. Hitler Youth, Hear'say groupies, greedy dotcom investors, hi-tech manufacturers and the lunatics who queue up to watch the latest hyped rubbish from Hollywood - all operate on the same pathological mob mentality that is incapable of telling pure illusion from any notion of reality.

If you cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, or just don't care which is which, you are hardly in a position to distinguish between good and bad. Quality is the third thing that hype kills. It puts the mediocre in the foreground and gives common currency to the pestiferous. Any bestseller list will confirm this. Trashy (but glossy) food and cookbooks, autobiographies of pop/sports/fashion stars who have hardly lived and embarrassing accounts of (mostly imagined) childhood wrongs rub shoulders with madcap mythology, tacky romance and the latest film tie-in.

It is all at about the same level as the home page of Mahir Cagri. Mahir,a Turk, shot to fame in 1999, proving the rule that hype, including self-hype, is successful in direct proportion to its crudeness. When you log on, you are greeted with: "Welcome to my home page !!!!!!!!!!!! I kiss you." Underneath, we have pictures of Mahir, sporting a flamboyant moustache below a hefty hooter, in everyday poses: playing table tennis, lying on the beach, lounging in leisurewear. Below that, we have the personal details: "I like sport, swimming . . . I like sex"; "my profession journalist, music and sport teacher, I make psycolojy doctora . . . I like to take foto-camera (towns, animals, nice nude models and people)" [sic]. When the site first opened, Mahir received e-mails and phone calls from women who wanted to correct his English or take him out on a date. Nothing too unusual in that. But some of his more cunning friends realised that he was a commodity tapping into an insatiable desire. Mirror sites were established, "hits" multiplied, and a legend was carefully constructed around Mahir.

In the Turkish press, he was hyped as an innocent man chased by oversexed white women. Hype fed upon hype. The Guardian and other newspapers ran profiles; CNN put Mahir on air; advertisers, at first local and small-scale, later corporate and international, bought space on his sites; critical theory specialists deconstructed his narrative; presidential candidates sought his endorsement. A simple internet search will now reveal some 25,000 Mahir sites selling Mahir products, promoting Mahir's style, analysing Mahir's impact - there are even parodies of his sites. And perhaps the Mahir phenomenon is itself just a parody of the way we allow ourselves to be duped, deluded and diverted.

The postmodern audience is supposedly alert to hype. Media studies courses in Britain and the US claim that we have all become media savvy. The hip young in particular, according to the theorists, are resistant to hype. Alas, they are not. On the whole, the hip young are fools. Give them a meaningless buzzword and see them lap up the hype like ice cream from a cornet. A couple of years ago it was "ultra" - ultra experiences (as in white-knuckle rides), ultra toothpaste and ultra bras. Now it's "extreme" - sports (bungee jumping, now a megacult), extreme travel (such as a celebrity going to the Arctic Circle, the ultimate in television hype), extreme endurance (as in reality shows such as Boot Camp, Survivor and Castaway), extreme animals and, no doubt soon to make its appearance, extreme sex. "Max" is on its way; "mega" has been there; no doubt, "severe" is looming somewhere on the future horizon. Indeed, the youth of the globalised world have been so infected with hype that simply labelling plain old H2O "Aqua" generates a new trend in drinking water.

The more savvy youth are caught by anti-hype. But that is just hype in disguise. Ironic anti-advertising or self-parodying anti-hype is designed to play "we know, you know" games. Think of the copy line from The Spy Who Shagged Me: "If you see one movie this summer, see Star Wars". The clothing manufacturer Diesel made a name for itself by giving ironic, back-handed compliments to other brands for improving the lives of consumers. Sales of Guinness went through the roof with the ironic and surreal Rutger Hauer advertisements, which associated the product with the young, funky and anti-hype.

If something can be a critical talking point, or better still a source of study in the academy, it is guaranteed to be hyped up as anti-hype. Benetton, with its posters of dying Aids patients, black and white angels and newborn babies, and Wonderbra, with its outrageously sexist advertising, have been very successful at this. Film studios now often set up websites to criticise and abuse their own productions in order to drum up the kind of word-of-mouth hype that so benefited The Blair Witch Project.

It is hardly surprising that hype-injected youth don't have any time for politics - for the real struggle to change the world. Politics is the fourth victim of hype. When people would rather vote on which members to expel from the Big Brother house than on who should be their MP, we know that politics has entered a terminal stage.

New Labour spin has been widely blamed for voter apathy. But new Labour did not invent spin. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was the real pioneer of hype. It was Thatcher who transformed party political broadcasts from talking heads to Saatchi & Saatchi advertisements for a political brand: think of the 1979 election campaign and the poster that showed a dole queue with the slogan "Labour isn't working". Later, Thatcher's government led the way in taking hype in to public information films. The chilling Aids campaign advertisements - one with a gravestone, the other with icebergs crumbling in the sea - established the standard. Whether she was fighting an election or a threatened epidemic, Thatcher used panic-ridden hype as her standard-bearer. It worked brilliantly for her successor, John Major, who won the 1992 election by terrifying the public with largely unfounded stories of Labour tax rises.

New Labour's achievement is the transformation of hype into a natural, organic phenomenon. Think of Tony Blair delivering, at the death of Diana, the "people's princess" speech: eyes wet, voice on the safe side of emotion, pauses calculated to be half-a-heartbeat, hands skilfully demonstrating spontaneity. Or the other potent symbol: Blair emerging from the official car in tight, faded blue jeans flashing his cute buns, carrying in one hand his battered guitar case and in the other a battered red box. This is spin at its best, invisible rather than transparent, seemingly accidental and spontaneous rather than stage-managed - much better than kissing babies or donning a hard hat for touring a riot-ridden city.

Finally, hype kills trust, confidence and hope and thus chokes community. We are aware of hype, but completely incapable of seeing how we can extract ourselves from its self-perpetuating cycles. When illusion is marketed as reality, how can we get back to solid ground? Castles in the air generate wealth, employment, and the service-driven world of post-industrial society. What happens to affluence and its consumerist idyll if we should decide to try less profligate lifestyles, more responsible ways of living? That way, we think, lies utter ruin for everyone.

So cynicism is all we have left, and we dignify it as art, the highest accolade of our creative imagination. Today, we are our own art forms, the ultimate expression of all that can be expressed. When everything is hype, we can trust only ourselves, even if we are merely following the rest of the mob. We know we see through it; we cannot be sure anyone else does.

When cynicism rules, and trust is a relic of distant antiquity, when we can be confident only that we are being sold a bill of goods, community suffocates on mob hysteria. To stand against the tide of the unreal, to demand an end to the manufacture and manipulation, is to threaten everyone's investment in a self-sustaining delusion. We may wish to talk about the need to rescue ourselves from this invidious spiral, but all forums of debate - art, media, politics - are centres for hypercreation. A world of glitz, glitz, glitz is bleak, bleak, bleak.

Hype, as the theatre critic Robert Gore-Langton once noted, is a form of passive smoking. But while Gore-Langton thought it was something we ultimately reject, I would argue that we have become so addicted that we may soon find it impossible to escape. In these supposedly post-ideological times, hype has become an ideology to beat all the ideologies of history. Like its predecessors, though more effectively, it acts as a pathogen on society. The dread words of the patron saint of political spin return to haunt us: perhaps there really is no alternative.

In his Turner Prize entry, an installation entitled 227: the lights going on and off, Martin Creed has captured the essence of hype. We move towards the hyped light but the moment we try to capture it, it goes off. There is nothing behind hype; and ultimately our hype-based civilisation is little more than an empty, dark room.

Ziauddin Sardar's A to Z of postmodern life will be published by Vision paperbacks in February 2002

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins