Harold Camping, the man responsible for yesterday’s false doomsday prophecy, is a genius. However, it’s questionable whether he’s actually aware of his cunning; it’s possible his awareness of what he actually did is latent, obscured by his religious zealousness. According to the Associated Press, Camping spent millions on his advertisement campaign, resulting in 5,000 billboards and numerous RV’s plastered with doomsday propaganda. While everybody’s castigating Camping for his inane prediction nobody is really asking why he did it or even analyzing what he accomplished. For a man who owns a large Christian radio network, syndicated in every American state, this is the best public relations move ever. Like the advertisements for Independence Day, Camping’s apocalyptic blunder got everybody talking – a difficult feat amidst a sea of information and products.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article criticizing the 1996 film Independence Day, calling it a pile of blathering bullshit. I still hold to that position – in short, its propagandistic nonsense using science fiction as a selling point. Regardless of its banality it was a very successful film. Following the brief advertisement aired during the Super Bowl everybody was talking about this film. Here’s the trailer:
This trailer focuses on destruction, fear, and humanity’s underlying knowledge of their mortality. One of America’s most notorious symbols, the White House, is obliterated by a vague looking flying saucer – naturally people were talking about this at the water cooler the next day. I saw the film in theaters (yes, I drank the Kool-Aid too) and it’s one of the few films I’ve been to where there were lines around the block. It made hundreds of millions of dollars and it’s not even a good film.
The point I’m making is that with the right exposure any idea can become viral. It doesn’t necessarily need an internet presence; it just needs to touch a nerve with the masses. Religion in general, and not just Christianity, predicts the world’s demise and it’s a subject everybody is familiar with; therefore it’s a topic tailor made for consumption. Prior to the recent past I’m fairly certain most people weren’t familiar with Harold Camping. I wasn’t. I’m sure I’ve heard the ramblings of Camping and his ilk on various stations throughout the years as I’m a connoisseur of tacky radio evangelists but I never heard his name until the other day. Now I’m familiar with him, the Family Radio broadcast company, and his incorrect predictions.
On Friday I logged onto Facebook and saw posts from most of my friends discussing our supposed demise on Saturday at 6pm. Most of the people I interact with on Facebook are atheists, or at least agnostics yet they were still talking about it. Camping’s strategy worked, even if everybody thought he was completely full of shit. His ideas were everywhere: they took up digital space on Facebook, major publications were devoting space to his insipid claims, news channels (both local and cable) were discussing his divination. People were holding apocalypse parties (I was invited to two) and I even saw an article this morning about a man found dead in a church, committing suicide because he believed “the end is nigh.” Just like Independence Day, Camping took a trite idea and influenced the masses with it. The funny part is we all bought into it, regardless of whether we believed it or not. It was a cultural force which consumed us all.
When 20th Century Fox was priming American audiences for ID4’s arrival I was working at Suncoast (a now defunct movie store chain). At least once a day we had to play a tape of trailers for the film, each about 30 seconds long and consisting of about five trailers. People ate that shit up: we sold shirts, action figures, posters – all for a film nobody had even seen yet. The teaser trailers were powerful enough for people to part with their hard earned money for paraphernalia surrounding a film not even in theaters yet. Really, what’s the difference between Fox’s techniques and Camping’s?
So before we condemn Camping for falsely predicting the world’s end we should really look at ourselves and ask whether we were conned. Earlier today I watched an episode of Lost called The Long Con and although I didn’t see the correlation at the time I believe we were all part of a long con; a con where we gave Camping and his syndicated radio network national exposure without even realizing it. We were duped, just like we were with Independence Day and we didn’t even realize it.