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Alien Nation, Part One
Where is our humanity?

by DK Holland

It’s estimated that there are five million trillion trillion bacteria on Earth, vastly outnumbering us. So ridding the planet of all its germs would not only be impossible, it would be a colossally bad idea. Dunn adds, “When we find something to be scary, we kill it. And it’s easy to make people scared of what’s invisible. We need to figure out how to manage the good things. Cows were domesticated from the aurochs ten thousand years ago.” An aurochs, before it went extinct, was the size of an elephant and hard to manage so we cultivated crops to feed the aurochs, bred it to be smaller, and renamed it “cow.” Eventually we controlled disease by pasteurizing the cow’s milk (thanks, Louis Pasteur), which reduced the number of pathogens and slowed spoilage. Dunn adds, “Like the aurochs, we need to domesticate the microbe. We will see a major shift in the next decade, we are already developing more balanced ways of thinking about bacteria based on solid research and findings.” Part of this has to be a massive public awareness campaign.

After the rise of industrialization, the “persuasion industries”—public relations and advertising—took off. In the 1920s the Austrian immigrant Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud started to use PR to manipulate the behavior and opinion of an unsuspecting public. He tapped into a dangerous concept—“herd mentality”—the tendency of groups of people and animals to conform. His goals were to create revenue streams and/or build public support for his clients, which included corporations and public figures. Advertising and public relations are now 500 billion dollar-plus worldwide industries.

Listerine was sold as a disinfectant for surgical procedures until the 1920s when it was repositioned as a mouthwash, to increase sales by broadening its market. Ads, featuring illustrations of pretty damsels in distress, read “How can I marry a man with breath like that?” Sales of Listerine shot up from $115,000 to more than eight million dollars within a decade. Prior to that, bad breath, or chronic halitosis, was no big problem. Listerine created the market. A current television commercial for Listerine puts the viewer inside a screen-wide shot of a mouth full of seemingly destructive microbes. It boasts that only Listerine “will kill 99.9 percent of germs.” Is Listerine promising to wipe out all the good stuff too? Does the consumer even understand the difference? Some agency somewhere has the Johnson & Johnson Listerine account. Maybe they are reading this article. At any rate they are definitely trying to profile their consumer, to tap into their subconscious motivations, to manipulate them to buy lots of product, to further increase the market and Listerine’s market share. That’s the way business works. Listerine’s active ingredients, unlike similar products that use synthetics, are natural, essential oils—herbals like thyme and menthol. Isn’t that a better, healthier message to promote? If consumers were more wary of what goes in their body, what is absorbed by their cells, what clogs up their system and what causes disease, wouldn’t their advertising approach have to change? Since products either fly off the shelves or gather dust depending on consumer reaction, can’t we use our consumer muscle to affect positive change? When’s the last time you talked with your friends, family or colleagues about health issues in any depth?

Thieves, produced by Young Living, is a product line similar to Listerine with essential oils as its main ingredients. The name derived from the legend of four French thieves who robbed the dead during the black plague in the 1400s, but never caught the plague themselves. When arrested, in exchange for freedom, they gave up their secret formula—the essential oils they had rubbed on their bodies had immunized them. The plague, which we now know was spread by a microbe carried by fleas, killed between 75–200 million people across Europe. Thieves sells high-end throat lozenges (a bag of 30 costs $26), and is marketed to consumers who read labels and value high quality. Besides five pure essential oils (clove, lavender, cinnamon, lemon and eucalyptus extracts), Thieves lists isomalt, pectin and stevia, all of which are natural and beneficial ingredients. The marketing approach is that the therapeutic-grade essential oils target “unwanted” microorganisms and, in general, bolster the body’s immune system. A typical mass-made cough drop, on the other hand, costs less than a hundredth of a Thieves lozenge, has man-made sugars like polysaccharides, dextrose and maltose, plus food dyes and artificial flavors like methyl anthranilate and ethyl caproate—and their essential oils may not be at all pure. So you may get rid of your cough, but you are ingesting a lot of bad stuff that may cause more problems. Cough drops represent a two billion dollar market of which Thieves represents a microscopic fraction. Wouldn’t an educated consumer value higher quality? A world full of educated consumers would mean a healthier, stronger, more productive population. With a world full of problems to solve that is what we desperately need.

The persuasion industries tap into both fear and love, but since self-protection is the more primal emotion, fear’s the easier one to capitalize on: If you’re dead, you can’t love. We are drawn to fear. Entertainment has also become a success as a persuasion industry. We see this in a long list of box office thrillers—manipulators like The Thing, Alien, Contagion, Epidemic, Undead and an endless list of zombie and vampire movies. And then there are blood and gore premium cable series’ like True Blood, based on a small southern town many of whose residents are vampires, and Dexter, about a nice guy who is a serial killer. In these series, it’s difficult to tell the good from the bad since they are often one-and-the-same. Life is like this. Edutainment is a great way to increase awareness.

Our childlike brains have molded the world to fit our current perception. We are huddled on that four-poster bed, stressed out, clutching our AK-47s, ready to kill all the monsters we fear will harm us. When will we be ready to wake up and get out of bed? ca

Editor’s note: Part two will appear in the May/June Illustration Annual.

1. David Bolinsky: Visualizing the wonder of a living cell, TEDtalk.
2. Rob Dunn and welcome you to send in swabs for analysis. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.