Celebrity, Voting and Gates

American voters have sent only two celebrities to the White House in the past century. Dwight Eisenhower witnessed the end of World War II. Herbert Hoover watched the beginning of the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan had been an actor and California’s governor, but his was not a household name until his first presidential campaign.

State voter have occasionally elected somebody who’s larger than life. The results have been mixed. Arnold Schwarzenegger did well enough as governor of California to be elected twice. Jesse Ventura didn’t have as much success as governor of Minnesota.

But a presidential candidate, whose name everybody knows for reasons that have nothing to do with governing — that’s entirely new ground for every American voter who’s less than 80 years old. Ask anyone who remembers to compare Donald Trump and Dwight Eisenhower and you’ll get what you deserve.

Celebrity isn’t as easy to measure as wealth, so we don’t talk about it as easily. But that doesn’t mean that others haven’t paid it as much attention. Quite the opposite is true. Building a fortune isn’t nearly as hard as building a reputation. Just ask Bill Cosby.

In a world where media had gatekeepers, measuring celebrity usually just counted those who came through the gates. Companies and organizations grew around that expertise. Nielsen, Arbitron, and the Audit Bureau of Circulation monitored those gates for television, radio, and newspapers.

The celebrity of movie stars was even easier to gauge, because every audience member had to pay for a ticket to see them. (Few of Reagan’s movies did particularly well, and none succeeded because of his name.) Studios have always known which actors are reliable risks, based on tickets sold for previous projects.

Celebrity is changing in the modern era of social media and 24-hour news. A person’s influence can be measured in Twitter followers or Youtube viewings.

You’ve probably never heard of a Q-rating or Q-score, but it measures name recognition without regard for any of those gates. The measurement is not new, but it’s become more important as media outlets have proliferated.

But measuring celebrity hasn’t stopped with free-range Q-ratings. Now, for the first time, software designers can use algorithms to measure our twitches. Which videos are we choosing to watch? Which banner ads get us to click? Whose Academy Award gowns make us gawk?

These can all be measured now, and it’s going to get more and more precise. Hardware designers are busy right now adding cameras to all our devices to watch our eyes. Machines will attempt to learn what we’re thinking, even before we click. In other words, it will know what we want to do before we decide that we’d better not.

Why is this important? Because there’s just one gatekeeper left that mavens would like to get around. It’s you and me — guarding our tongue, controlling our desires, saying “No” to things we don’t want to want.

Once the machines and the marketers behind them know the things we don’t want to want, they can offer them to us again and again — until we can no longer resist. Once self control doesn’t seem worth the effort, there will be no more gates to be kept.

Lay that dystopian vision over a presidential campaign and you can see the hole we’re digging getting deeper. American poet Robert Frost despaired of this late in his life, almost 50 years ago, “Anymore people don’t think; they vote.”

Thinking is hard. Voting is easy. Shopping is even easier.

Which candidate makes us move, or — soon — think of moving? Whose ideas do we like? Which images slow us down or hurry us up? What do we want, even if we don’t want to want it? Who can give us that?

A presidential campaign is really nothing more than the most expensive and sophisticated product launch in the history of humanity. Whatever succeeds in selling a president in 2016 will somehow be used to sell a pizza in 2017. Likewise, whatever marketers have perfected in 2015 is being used by politicians right now.

How do we respond? Do we shop, vote, or think?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.