Mindshapers want watching

20 October 1999

Makers of moving and sounding pictures have always known the power of their techniques and products for instruction (including education, training and propaganda) as much as for entertainment. Either because naively unaware of their own inconsistency or because cynically disregarding it in pursuit of some sort of aggrandizement or just of box-office receipts, certain showbiz pundits deny that screened fictional violence, crime and other reprehensible activity might prompt copycat behaviour in the real world.

The Edison Electric Institute, Columbia, USA, was sufficiently provoked to protest publicly about an example of this self-deception or self-serving. When the film, Small Soldiers, was released by the DreamWorks studios (and hailed for its 'high-tech animation') an EEI vice president, M. William Brier, spoke out to the media and appealed to Steven Spielberg, the studios' ultimate boss, not to allow such portrayals again.

The characters in the film include a Schwarzenegger-type commando, a Neanderthal and toy soldiers. The main characters try to overwhelm the soldiers by using an electromagnetic pulse to destroy computer chips located in the toys' heads. The method is to short-circuit two distribution transformers on a utility pole.

The film shows a teenage boy climbing the pole, crawling over the rigging and standing on the insulators. He puts a toy soldier between the transformers, causing a violent explosion, and is hurled to the ground – unhurt.

As Brier warned, 'in real life the outcome of such a dangerous prank would be far worse'. He deplored the implicitly given signal to young people "that it's okay to play on or around electric utility equipment, poles and transformers", negating the utilities' decades of struggle to persuade children otherwise.

Small Soldiers did not prove such a colossal hit as some of Spielberg's more admirable epics but it did quite well, grossing $14 million at US box offices in its first week. Its merchandising sideshows were outstandingly successful, commercially. But one product, a quasi-religious calendar, evoked an institutional complaint that it was 'either cynically indifferent or just ignorant'. Which is where we came in.

“A signal negating utilities’ decades of struggle”

Diversify your product lines

Common in the traffic across my desk are notices extolling the ramifying services offered by North American utilities. These enterprises still acknowledge power as their 'core' product but they busily promote a catalogue of other goodies. I confess that my appetite for such announcements was satiated some time ago.

But this dispatch from Reuters is different. It reports something that happened to certain Canadians who buy their electricity and various other things from TransAlta Utilities, Alberta. The customers were not seeking anything truly exotic – just information on outages and bills – when they rang in on TransAlta's toll-free number. Of course the girls who answered them had friendly, charming voices but on this occasion their speech was friendlier and more charming than could have been expected, even from top-flight graduates of customer service training courses.

Meanwhile, on a line operated by the same telephone company, other callers dialling a different number were expecting friendly, charming voices to offer profounder satisfactions than TransAlta stocked, and were dismayed by the relatively prosaic services tendered to them.

Dismay is probably not the right word for the feelings of the utility customers who received the seductive responses. Reuters' headline, Looking for a turn on? Call the electric company, does capture something of the excitement of their story. For about four hours the TransAlta line stayed crossed with the sex line, causing shocks that were at least metaphorically electric. Then the telephone company, which later explained that it 'had been making programming changes', finally disentangled the wires.

TransAlta's spokesman is quoted by Reuters as saying: 'customer service at TransAlta can involve a lot of things, but this is one thing it does not include'. I wonder whether many of the other things, included or excluded, could so effectively have turned on the interest of the public.


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