Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Meet Me in Atlantic City

So, if you have nothing better to do this weekend, and you're in the neighborhood, you can come meet me down in Atlantic City (that's in South Jersey in case you didn't know). I'll be at a different kind of conference from my usual academic fare. This one's called SOCON Social Media Internet User Advocates, and it's taking place at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel (which may be your last chance to see it, since it'll be closing its doors not too long after, one of many hotels and casinos in the former boardwalk empire to fold due to the economy and increased competition from legalized gambling elsewhere in the region, and online).

Anyway, you can read all about it on the SOCON site. Just click on the old linkaroo and you'll see me listed as the keynote speaker, along with a nice graphic of some of my book covers. The other headliners are comedienne Michelle Tomko and personal trainer and fitness coach PJ Shirdan. That should make for some interesting juxtapositions...

So, anyway, the title I came up for my talk is, "So You Want to Change the World? A Hitchhiker's Guide to Subversive Thinking?" (what do you think?). And the blurb to go with it goes like this:

Whether you're an activist, or an entrepreneur, an amateur or a professional, an executive or a volunteer, chances are there are things about the world, or things about your world, that you want to change. But change doesn't always come easy, and when it does, it often doesn't work out quite the way we wanted it to. And while there are no guarantees in life, developing successful strategies for change begins with subversive thinking, with adopting new ways of talking about the world, of perceiving and understanding the environments we live and operate within. This talk will introduce some of the most important and useful methods for subversive thinking, based on the fields of general semantics and media ecology.

As I said, it's a bit different from my usual fare, but then again, it isn't. So anyway, while I'm not native to New Jersey, and consequently do not take part in the Springsteen worship that everyone else in this state seems to go in for, I think this certainly calls for a bit of Bruce (don't you think?)...

And yeah, this song is what the title of this blog post alludes to. It's an obvious reference (you agree, right?). Well, anyway, I'm not really sure about how it will all turn out, it's Atlantic City so it's got to be a gamble, after all.  But it should be interesting...  and good fun!


Monday, September 15, 2014

Which Media Ecologist Are You?

So, back in June I saw a post on the Accrinet company's blog, written by the company president Jeff Kline, and I should add that the blog is a wonderful resource on online communication, especially for nonprofits—I highly recommend it!

Anyway, so back in June, Jeff Kline posted on How To Make Online Quizzes For Your Nonprofit, which I somehow found intriguing, even though I rare partake in those quizzes that seem to pop up almost daily on Facebook.

Now, I know what you're thinking, that as a professor I am more than a little familiar with the practice of quizzing and testing, and you're right, I am. But that sort of thing is far from my favorite part of the job, I hasten to add, and anyway, what we do in the classroom is a far cry from the kinds of quizzes that circulate on social media. I was going to call them "fun quizzes" but that would be presumptuous, and maybe suggestive of a subset of amusing (and amazing) ourselves to death, quizzing ourselves to death? I know sometimes it may feel like that over on Facebook.

Of course, as someone who teaches about new media, among other things, it never hurts to try things out for myself, and anyway no one, not even Neil Postman, said that you can't have a little fun once in a while. You just have to be aware of the distinction between entertainment and serious discourse.

And pertaining to testing, it is also important to remember that a test is only a test, and it may be a measurement of some sort, but we shouldn't confuse the measurement with the phenomenon being measured. An example Postman frequently pointed to was intelligence testing, which is supposed to measure some "thing" called intelligence which we're not even really sure exists, at least not as a singular phenomenon, let alone a quantifiable one. So, we don't exactly know what intelligence is, but we come up with tests for it anyway, and then say that the score you get on the test is your intelligence. That's exactly the kind of problem with the word "is" that Alfred Korzybski criticized long ago, the kind of problem that general semantics is meant to counter. And as Postman pointed out, saying that the score is your intelligence is an example of reification, of making real something that is only a measure, symbol, or representation. 

So, testing is inherently problematic, and intelligence testing especially so, since so much can be riding on it, from placement in schools to whether or not an individual is involuntarily institutionalized. And it has also been used to support bias and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class. A great book on this subject was written by the well known scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, entitled The Mismeasure of Man. It was required reading in Postman's media ecology doctoral program.

So, anyway, maybe these online quizzes serve an important critical function in getting us to think a little bit about testing in general, and not take them too seriously?

Be that as it may, to get back to what I was writing about before I got off on this tangent, Kline's blog post directed me to qzzr, a site where you can create your own quiz. Like many such sites, LinkedIn for example, qzzr offers two tiers of service, one for free, and a premium option that lets you capture leads and otherwise drive social media traffic to your organization's website, as well as providing some tracking data. And having tried qzzr out, let me say right up front that I second Kline's recommendation, creating a quiz was relatively easy and enjoyable, and the quiz I made got a great response from folks I shared it with. And it works perfectly on mobile devices as well as on computers. Also, I had some email interactions with the folks at qzzr and I found them to be responsive, entirely helpful, and quite pleasant to deal with.

Wait a minute, you made a quiz?, you may be saying to yourself, or saying out loud if you have no filters. And yeah, well, I did. I just had this idea to make a quiz on (can you guess?), Which Media Ecologist Are You? So I did it. It took a little bit of work, but I really did get into creating the quiz, and the end product was even more gratifying then I imagined. And you can take the quiz for yourself over on the qzzr site by clicking on Which Media Ecologist Are You?, but another cool feature they provide is the ability to embed the quiz, as I've done below:

So, what do you think? And who did you get? And if you don't mind, please share the result on Facebook and Twitter.

My intent was to have some fun with it, and most of the responses I got were along those lines, of folks enjoying the quiz, and happy or intrigued by the results. My intent was to promote media ecology and the Media Ecology Association, and I think the quiz did the job. What I didn't expect, and found especially gratifying, was that some folks said they found the quiz to be thought-provoking, in getting quiz takers to be aware of and think about the wide range of subject matter covered within the field of media ecology. I didn't give too much thought to the quiz's educational value when I created it, but I think it's great that it can work in that way. Some folks said they are going to use it with their students, again, something I never considered, but actually I think it isn't a bad idea, and I'm going to ask my students to take it as well.

I should add that there were a few people who were critical of one aspect of the quiz or another. You can't please everybody, after all, and some folks had issues with the questions on politics and geography in particular, or just were displeased with the outcome. For this reason, I will not reveal all of the possible results of the quiz, there are 26 media ecologists you might end up with, because I know some people will question why I included one or another, or why I didn't include someone they would have included. To which I can only say, hey, I did the quiz my way, based on my understanding of our field and on what I thought would work best in this format, and maybe you shouldn't take the quiz so seriously after all, hmmm?

I'll note that in response to one critical comment over on the Media Ecology Association's discussion list, I responded with the following:

while you may consider the questions and results "dubious" in some way, let me assure you that the quiz was prepared utilizing the most rigorous of scientific methodologies to render results that are entirely unassailable. While you may have found some questions to have more than one possible answer that you would want to choose, and some where none of the answers strike you as acceptable, understand that the formulation of the wording of each item was extremely precise, while the accompanying images were deliberately chosen to evoke subtle and subliminal responses, so that even when you were uncertain or unhappy with an answer, the choice you made provided data derived from your unconscious that aided in assessing you intellectually, professionally, and in regard to your personality profile. The quiz underwent extensive pretesting and refinement in order to insure the the highest degree of validity and reliability. In short, as all good media ecologists know, there is no arguing with science, and if the results say that you are Tony Schwartz, then that is in fact who you are.

I hope you get the fact that my rsponse was a bit of satire, bringing us back to my earlier point about reification and testing. Oh, and as for who I got when I took the quiz, it was Neil Postman.  And you?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Où est la BiblioTech?

So, the title of this post is a nod to the fact that I took French in secondary school, starting at Russell Sage Junior High School in Forest Hills and continuing at Hillcrest High School in Jamaica (that's in the New York City Borough of Queens, in case you don't know). I am not all fluent in the language, but I do recall a thing or two from those days, I'm happy to say. And one of the phrases that has stuck with me for all of these years (more than I care to count, or recount) is: Où est la bibliothèque?

It's a classic phrase used for beginning French students, which is why it wound up as part of the lyrics featured in this music video from The Flight of the Conchords, Foux Da Fa Fa:


Now, it's not that I remembered that sequence from the short-lived HBO comedy series, even though I did do a blog post on it way back in 2007, when Blog Time Passing was not even 6 months old (you can read that post, Laughter from New Zealand, if you like, but all of the videos I included no longer work, broken links being one of the pitfalls of writing on the web). No, I just did a Google search on Où est la bibliothèque? and that video, a parody of French film circa the 1960s, popped up.

So, why was I doing that search? Because I wanted to check on where exactly do all of the accent marks go in that sentence, and that's because I do remember a bit of my French lessons, but far from perfectly. And now, thinking about it, while that French sentence, which translates as, Where is the library?, makes perfect sense for a class being taught at school, it was hardly the most useful of questions to imprint on students' memories. Wouldn't, say, Where is the restroom? or Where is the American embassy?, for that matter, be much more relevant for someone traveling in a foreign land?

And it's not just that Où est la bibliothèque? is less than relevant for a tourist visiting Paris, or that it reflects a distinctly academic bias. It's also that it is a remnant of a bygone age, a time when libraries played a much more significant role in our cultures than they do today, in our postliterate, electronic, digital, internetty (internutty?) age. Of course, that also means that Où est la bibliothèque? has taken on new and somewhat disturbing connotations, as in, where have all the libraries gone, long time passing?

And to acknowledge the decline and fall of the bookish world that those of us of a certain age knew and loved, and because I never met a pun I didn't like, or tried to find a use for, I turned bibliothèque into BiblioTech. And going even further back into the early history of this blog, back to its first month of existence, I had posted an entry entitled Medieval Helpdesk that featured another comedic video, this one a Scandinavian skit worthy of Monty Python. You can click on the link to see what I wrote about it back in 2007, but I'll include the Norwegian video here as well:

So, now, why all of this walking down memory lane, you might be asking? Or maybe not, or maybe you stopped reading this post after the first paragraph, in which case I'm writing to myself. And maybe that's just what blogging is anyway? But anyway, the reason all of this comes to mind is a recent video from another Nordic source, Ikea. Maybe you saw it online already, it's called Experience the power of a bookbook™ , and in case you haven't, or just want to see it again, here it is:

As you may have gathered, the video is both a parody of Apple commercials and a genuine ad for the Swedish furniture company. Now, here's the write-up that went with the video over on YouTube:

At only 8mm thin, and weighing in at less than 400g, the 2015 IKEA Catalogue comes pre-installed with thousands of home furnishing ideas. Join the revolution at http://IKEA.sg/bookbook (Singapore) or http://IKEA.my/bookbook (Malaysia).

Now, note the irony here, as they still direct you to a website (or two). And if you go to the website, you'll find the content of the video translated into a series of web pages So, even though Ikea is touting the virtues of a print medium, they are using new media to get that message out. Well, that's not at all unheard of. Going back to Plato, we have his criticisms of the medium of writing appearing in written works such as the Phaedrus, and Neil Postman among others went on television to criticize the very medium he was appearing on. You gotta find a way to get the message out, after all.

Not that Ikea's main concern was promoting a media ecological awareness. But even as an accidental by-product of the use of humor and parody in the service of persuasion and commercial promotion, it's good to see, if for nothing else than for a bit of comedy relief.

Speaking of which (and ignore the Swedish subtitles if you please)...

Where did that come from, you might ask? Well, another French phrase that stuck with me is, La plume est sur la table, which means, The pen is on the table. But when I did a Google search on it, it turns out that the more common phrase used in French class is, La plume de ma tante est sur la table, which means, My aunt's pen is on the table. And one of the search results that Google gave me was this video, Où est la plume de ma tante? And that of course means, Where is my aunt's pen? And that makes perfect sense, that following the disappearance of the library, wouldn't the pen be the next to go?

And it all just seems so very fitting, doesn't it? Où est la bibliothèque? Où est la plume? Où est le livre? That last one means, Where is the book? Where in the world have they all gone away to?

Je ne sais pas, je ne sais pas...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Origin of Cyberspace

Another great find from our friends at Brain Pickings, a video clip of science fiction writer William Gibson relating how he coined the term cyberspace. Those of us of a certain age may remember how cyberspace became a big buzzword back in the early 90s, and the basis of innumerable other neologisms, such as cyberpunk, cyberculture, cybersociety, cyberart, cybertalk, cybereducation, cybercash, cyberbusiness, cybermall, cyberporn, cybersex, cyberselves, cyberethics, cyberfashion, cybercafé, cybergoth, and my personal favorite, cybertime.

In most discussions of the meaning of cyberspace, there would be some acknowledgement that Gibson was the one who came up with the term. Usually, it was said to have been introduced in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer, although it actually shows up a little earlier, in the short story "Burning Chrome" published in 1982, for example.

In the write up on the Brain Pickings website, How William Gibson Coined “Cyberspace”, Maria Popova implies that the popularity of the term followed immediately after the publication of Neuromancer, which is not entirely accurate. For the most part, the term was ignored during the 80s, only picked up a little bit by folks writing about telecommunications. It wasn't until about 1991 that it started to take off, just as the internet became a popular phenomenon, and because it captured a sense of what that new revolution in communications was all about.

Anyway, it has been fairly well established that Gibson himself was not very up on computers and network technologies, and his vision of cyberspace was a product of his imagination, banged out on a manual typewriter. And it also is well known that his inspiration came from watching teens playing coin-operated video games at arcades. But it is good to hear it in his own words, in this excerpt from an interview at the New York Public Library:

Some points worth adding to this:

  • The term cyberspace is derived from the term cybernetics, which was coined by Norbert Wiener in the late 40s, and defined as the science of control. It was used to refer to computers and information technology through the 50s, as the term computer was not officially settled upon until the end of the 50s. But cybernetics covered more than technology, as it was introduced as a general science of communication, based on the idea of communication as control, with emphasis on feedback and interactivity. As used by Wiener, Gregory Bateson, and many others, notably via the Macy Conferences (1946-1953), it encompassed biology, ecology, and psychology, as well as technology. In this respect, cybernetics eventually evolved into systems theory, and the original term was largely abandoned, and remained for the most part unacknowledged when cyberspace became a buzz word, and cyber- a popular combining form.

  • During the 50s, cyborg was another new coinage, a portmanteau word standing for cybernetic organism, and referring to serious efforts to invent prosthetic devices with electronic feedback mechanisms. During the 70s, bionics became a popular alternative to cyborg, and both terms appeared in science fiction contexts. In the 80s, cyborg also started to be used among cultural theorists, i.e., Donna Haraway. When cyberspace became popular, almost no one made the connection of the common ancestor it shared with cyborg, no doubt because the prefix is cy- instead of cyber-.

  • In addition to Wiener and Bateson, Marshall McLuhan was most certainly an influence on Gibson's vision of cyberspace, which represents a cool medium par excellence, and computers as an extension of the body to the extent that the individual directly jacks into the console through an interface connecting brain/nervous system to the electronic medium.

  • Gibson's vision inspired, and to a significant extent was appropriated by the popular film, The Matrix. This included the idea of plugging into computers via a port installed in the back of the person's skull, the idea of a virtual reality as a "consensual hallucination," of cyberspace inhabitants including artificial intelligences indistinguishable from human beings, of the term matrix used to refer to a future version of the internet, of mirror shades as a stylistic motif, of the cyberpunk genre in general, etc. The film does not, in any way, acknowledge Gibson or his work, which strikes me as unjust. Gibson is acknowledged, however, and actually makes a cameo in the television miniseries, Wild Palms.

  • A significant difference between Gibson's cyberspace and later visions of virtual reality such as The Matrix is that Neuromancer does not present a simulation of anything like the reality we know, but rather more of an abstract, geometric representation of dataspace. It more closely resembles the first generation of video games, and the look of the movie Tron, which also came out in 1982.

  • While cyberspace has faded out from popular parlance, the cyber- combining form persists in various governmental, military, law enforcement, and other institutional and official settings, e.g., cybercrime, cybersecurity, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, cyberthreats, cyberespionage, as well as two-word phrases such as cyber operations, and Cyber Monday. In 2012, President Obama speaking at the U.S. Air Force Academy stated that, "we will maintain our military superiority in all areas—air, land, sea, space and cyber." This brings us back to the spatial connotations of cyberspace, and as language maven Ben Zimmer notes, indicates that cyber has become a stand alone noun.

Is cyber- poised for a comeback, then? A comeback would be only fitting for a term that began in reference to feedback, don't you think? I don't expect it to ever become a buzz word again, not the way it was back in the early 90s, and I am thankful for that, as it was terribly overused at that time. But I do think some members of this family of terms have some utility, and some resonance, and ought to remain a part of our (cyber)vocabulary.

Well, I suppose only (cyber)time will tell. 

So, for now, be cyber-seeing you...

Ah well, heavy sigh, brrrr...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Time Warped

So, time being a theme that I come back to here from time to time, at least in passing, I thought I'd share this video that came to my attention via our friends at Brain Pickings, in a post entitled The Science of Our Warped Perception of Time, Animated. The video, posted by BrainCraft, and entitled Your Warped Perception of Time, is quite well done indeed, and in my opinion, worth a few minutes of our time:

So, there is a psychological parallel to the relativity of time in physics. This no doubt is related to the sense that people have that time slows down during an accident. What is left unsaid is what accounts for this phenomenon.

Perhaps it has to do with the time lag that inevitably exists between events occurring in the world and our perception of them. After all, it takes time for the light rays and ripples of sound to hit our eyes and ears, a little more time for those stimuli to cause nerve endings to fire, a little more time for those signals to reach the brain, and a little more time for the brain to process them. The delay may be miniscule, but it is a delay. 

So, perhaps there is an ordinary delay that is sufficient for most events occurring in everyday life, and then an expedited process of perception that occurs when there's potential danger, i.e., something is coming at us, passing through our various distance zones from public to social to personal to intimate space. So the nervous system speeds up in response to a threat, which in turn provides the illusion of time slowing down.

Of course, this doesn't account for time seeming to slow down when we're bored and speed up when we're having fun. Could it be that our nervous systems register boredom as a threat? You would think so from the way that we have developed so many forms of entertainment and technologies with the purpose of keeping ourselves amused, especially apparent in the way we all whip out our smart phones these days when encountering the slightest bit of down time. We may be amusing ourselves to death, but apparently our brains find that preferable to the threat of being bored to death, perhaps working under the false presumption that it is either one or the other.

Well, my time's up, so I'll be taking my leave. I don't want you to think I'm a danger to you, after all, even if, maybe I am?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

General Semantics in India

So, I was pleased to have received a new volume in the mail, all the way from Delhi, an anthology edited by Deepa Mishra, a professor of English at the University of Mumbai, entitled General Semantics: A Critical Companion. I'd give you the link for Amazon, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be available there, but you can order the book from the Kaveri Book Service, where it seems to be very reasonably priced ($13.95 list, discounted to $12.56, as of today, but I don't know what they're charging for shipping and handling).

So, I had the sudden urge to use the "Add a Photo" function on Twitter. Yeah, I know it's old hat, but I've generally avoided that sort of thing. But since there wasn't an Amazon page with the book cover, I figured, let me do one of those twitpics for once.  So here it is:

So like, yeah, ummm, what's wrong with this picture? I took it via Mac's Photo Booth application, and I should have remembered that it does mirror images from the last time I used it:

Well, just another reminder that the map is not the territory, and maybe I'll have better luck (or memory) next time. In any event, with a little help from Mac's Preview application, let's straighten things out:

Yes, that's much better, don't you think? So let me share a little more, but now via my iPhone's TurboScan app. First, here's the front inside cover book flap, or whatever you call it:

And let's get the back cover inside book flap thing as well:

Not too shabby, eh? And let's include the title page while we're at it:

And let's flip over from the recto to the verso side:

Now that you have the basic information, I want to share the fact that I was very touched by the dedication page:

I met Balvant back in 2009, when I was his guest, and gave an address and a workshop at the Balvant Parekh Centre in Baroda (see my previous posts, A Workshop in Baroda and Just a Few More Images From India). Here's a photo from then, with Balvant on the left, and his brother NK on the right:

I was saddened to learn of his passing last year. One of the amazing things I learned when I met with him was that he first learned about general semantics and became interested in the subject by reading the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics back when Neil Postman was editor (which ties us back in to my earlier reverso photo of Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited). Anyway, there is a nice write-up about the book over on the Balvant Parekh Centre website, where it says,

As a tribute to Late Balvant K. Parekh who believed in sharing the wealth of knowledge, Deepa Mishra, Associate Professor of English at CHM College has collected and edited articles from scholars who have been studying and doing general semantics for many decades, significant academicians from humanities and social sciences, students, researchers and new entrants to the discipline/ method of general semantics.

There's a picture of Dr. Mishra on the site as well:

And the page also included her own write-up about the book:

General Semantics should not be confused as any particular philosophy or discipline; it can be best regarded as a way of life, which if practiced, can truly open up the latent, but enormous human potential. Breaking away from the Aristotelian tradition which is believed to have casted human thinking in a particular mould, General Semantics does not ground itself in any metaphysical or religious contemplation. It rather draws its conclusions from the rich human experience over the last few thousand years and defines a unique way of engaging with the world around us. This engagement is not only non-conflicting, but also complementary in nature, promising to bind time in an inclusive and forward looking manner; generation after generation. These concepts were initiated by Alfred Korzybski in Manhood of Humanity and subsequently elaborated in much greater detail in his magnum opus, Science and Sanity. However, over the last 90 years, more particularly in the 64 years after Korzybski’s death, his ideas have got limited scholarly and empirical attention, restricted, by and large, only to the United States of America.

The efforts of Balvant Parekh Center for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences can be best regarded as “work-in-progress,” as it is trying to create a new kind of intensity around this early twentieth century thought-innovation. This book is an attempt to capture and showcase some of the recent discussions. While a few of the essays provide a short and precise detour, many of them try to see these thoughts through the prism of the contemporary times. In summary, it is an effective grouping of the old and the new, refreshing to the reader and more importantly, it attempts to create a familiarizing orientation for any new reader.

Of course, no doubt what you would really want to know is, what's in the book, and who the contributors are. Well, depending on your background, you should find at least one familiar name, and maybe a few others. Here are the Contents pages:

So, all in all a very nice volume indeed! Congratulations, Professor Mishra, on a great contribution to humanity's time-binding efforts, and a job well done!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Rule Against Drinking on TV

Did you know that little Doogie Howser, MD is old enough to drink? Well, of course, it's been many years since that sitcom first aired, back in September of 1989, and many years since it last went off the air, over two decades ago, in July of 1993. Since then, the star of the show, Neil Patrick Harris, has gone on to bigger and better things, and emerged as a major comedic talent.

But, it seems, he's not too big to shill out for the advertising industry, and in particular for beer commercials.  Perhaps you've seen his recent starring role as a pitchman for Heineken Light beer?

Hey, there's no question that beer commercials have a long history of being some of the most amusing forms of advertising you can find on American television. But that doesn't change the fact that the product they're selling, alcoholic beverages, is associated with negative effects that are far from funny or entertaining. 

And as you may know, back in 1987 I co-authored a research report based on an analysis of the myths and cultural meanings of beer commercials: Myths, Men & Beer: An Analysis of Beer Commercials on Broadcast Television, 1987, by Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, Lance Strate, Charles Weingartner. You can download a scanned PDF of the publication from ERIC, just click here.  I'm not sure exactly how many print copies were distributed and sold by the research sponsor, the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, but I know it numbers in the tens of thousands, at least. I also published several articles and chapters on the subject as a follow-up, one of the lesser known ones can be found online here.

Anyway, getting back to this particular commercial, let me put aside the way that the ad associates beer with a disregard for rules, and how that relates to the American cultural myth of masculinity, with rules seen as a challenge to be overcome rather than a structure to honor and work within, and how the romantic notion of being a rule-breaker may be a staple of hero narratives, but is particularly problematic when it comes to concerns such as underage drinking, and drinking and driving. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that this ad brings up the question of why is it that you never see anyone actually drinking beer in television commercials? The ad seems to suggest that it is due to regulations, which implies federal legislation passed by Congress, or policy adopted by the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission. Many people out there seem to believe this is the case, and see it as another case of unwarranted and unwanted government intrusion on the private sector.

And they're wrong! The government has nothing to do with it, neither the executive or legislative branches. As it turns out, the rule originates with the broadcasting industry. Now, let me note that this question was brought to my attention by Jon Greenberg, a staff writer for PunditFact, which according to their website,

is a project of the Tampa Bay Times and the Poynter Institute, dedicated to checking the accuracy of claims by pundits, columnists, bloggers, political analysts, the hosts and guests of talk shows, and other members of the media.

We define a pundit as someone who offers analysis or opinions on the news, particularly politics and public policy. One can engage in punditry by writing, blogging or appearing on radio or TV. A pundit is not an elected official, not a declared candidate nor anyone in an official capacity with a political party, campaign or government.

PunditFact is funded in part by $625,000 in grants over two years from the Ford Foundation and the Democracy Fund. Seed money for the project was provided by craigconnects.

So, anyway, I was one of many sources that Jon contacted to check up on the claim made in the beer ad, which was evaluated as being "mostly true" (meaning not entirely): A "regulatory thing" means you can’t show someone drinking beer on camera.  You can click on the link to see the article in its entirety (no, I'm not quoted in it, but it's still worth a look). It begins with a discussion of the Heineken ad, and then poses the question:

But we wondered about the director’s claim that a "regulatory thing" stops people from drinking beer in commercials. We’ve seen plenty of beer commercials and just always assumed that someone was drinking at some point.

The fact is, however, ad makers successfully are getting us to see more than is on screen.

In case you were wondering, it’s not the long arm of government that’s stopping people from a sip of sudsy brew. A press officer at the Federal Communications Commission, the body in charge of decency and other rules for broadcasters, said FCC rules are silent on drinking on camera.

"Congress has not enacted any law prohibiting broadcast advertising of any kind of alcoholic beverage, and the FCC does not have a rule or policy regulating such advertisements," she said, citing the agency’s website.

If there’s an iron fist, it belongs to the broadcasters.

Tara Rush, senior director of corporate communications at Heineken USA, said the rules come from TV networks.

"This is a regulation with the actual TV networks," Rush said. "It’s a long-standing rule."

The broadcasters’ trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters, has no policy itself, but a spokesman sent us articles that describe how each network is free to set its own standards and, as it stands, when it comes to beer, they frown on public displays of ingestion.

The Heineken ad alludes to this. Near the end, the director talks about network execs getting in a room to agree on a set of rules.

Now, speaking of the NAB, what I did find in response to Jon's query was an article entitled Ad of the Day: Neil Patrick Harris Doesn't Get Why He Can't Drink Heineken Light on TV But here's the explanation, if you're interested, by David Griner, which appeared in Adweek magazine. And Griner provides a somewhat different explanation of the NAB's role in the matter:

While it's not really explained in the ad, there's no law keeping Harris—or anyone else—from drinking a beer on camera. The United States government doesn't actually limit alcohol marketing at all, or as the FCC notes, "Congress has not enacted any law prohibiting broadcast advertising of any kind of alcoholic beverage, and the FCC does not have a rule or policy regulating such advertisements."

The brewing industry's Beer Institute has its own voluntary guidelines, and they're generally OK with showing beer drinking, too: "Although beer advertising and marketing materials may show beer being consumed (where permitted by media standards), advertising and marketing materials should not depict situations where beer is being consumed rapidly, excessively, involuntarily, as part of a drinking game, or as a result of a dare."

However, several broadcast networks continue to stick to a long-expired portion of the Television Code that prohibited showing alcohol being consumed. (Thus the ad's reference to "network execs in a room somewhere.")

Also, Canada has a bevy of beverage restrictions, including a rule against showing "scenes in which any such product is consumed, or that give the impression, visually or in sound, that it is being or has been consumed." As you can imagine, other countries have their own rules, too, making a beer ad with global reach a truly hamstrung affair.

So in short, yeah, it's complicated. And it's not too likely to change anytime soon.

So, there is a historical connection to the NAB, and specifically to its Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, one that continues to influence industry policy. Unfortunately, the link provided by the Adweek article is to a Wikipedia entry that does not specifically reference the policy on showing people consuming alcohol on camera, and I was not able to find a copy of the Code itself through a cursory search online. But I do find Griner's explanation to be reasonable and persuasive, and kudos as well to Canada for its contribution towards keeping the advertisers in check. 

I should add that Griner also suggests that, "we can probably expect a similar gag to come around every few decades," reminding us that back in the 80s a similar commercial aired, featuring Paul Hogan, aka Crocodile Dundee, hawking Foster's:

Returning to the PunditFact piece, here's the response from the beer industry's spokesperson: 

A spokeswoman for The Beer Institute, the voice of brewers and distributors, told us their members are loath to take chances with network policy.

"If you’re putting an ad together, you will be as conservative as possible so you know it will get past all the networks," said Megan Kirkpatrick, director of communications at the Institute.

Kirkpatrick said the brewers have no desire to stir things up and risk stirring a cry for a new law.

"The fact that it is self-regulated now, that’s not something brewers would want to put in jeopardy," Kirkpatrick said. "It’s the way they have operated for decades. You show a lot of people enjoying a football game or enjoying a baseball game but you don’t show any consumption. I don't think you’re going to see that change."


Rush left us with this tantalizing thought about the long-standing rule.

"Some networks are now beginning to change it," Rush said.

Note that Kirkpatrick's assurances are not backed up by the official guidelines of the Beer Institute, as noted in the Adweek article. And while the PunditFact piece ends on a lighthearted note—"We doubt Heineken is hoping for a quick shift. If commercials start showing people sipping away, that Heineken ad will be about as enticing as, well, old beer."—based on past history I think we can assume that the beer industry would love to see the broadcasting industry's policy altered, and eradicated. 

And maybe you're saying, what's the big deal, anyway? My response is that alcohol is a special kind of product, which is why the United States Department of Justice has a special Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. There are laws regulating drinking age and prohibiting drunk driving. We expect individuals to refrain from drinking while on the job in most occupations, and in a variety of other situations that require a measure of seriousness and decorum, not to mention concentration and coordination.

And we impose few limits on communication in the United States, in keeping with our First Amendment, but we do impose some on commercial speech, such as truth in advertising, and the ban on tobacco commercials. There are very few limits imposed on alcohol advertising, however, too few in my opinion. This isn't about bringing back Prohibition, it's simply about asking for a reasonable amount of restraint. In holding to this one truly modest rule that says you can't show someone drinking on camera, broadcasters are acknowledging the fact that there is a significant difference between alcohol and toothpaste, between alcohol and smart phones, between alcohol and bottled water. I for one hope that our broadcasters will be able to not only hold their liquor, but also hold the line.

And I don't know about Neil Patrick Harris, but I am pretty confident that a certain Doogie Howser, MD, would agree...