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Blockheads

Edward Bernays: blame him.

Edward Bernays: blame him.

"I think I'm gonna spew," said Brad Cranfield, winner of The Block, which is certainly how this viewer felt watching the Channel Nine renovation show.

As the contestants listened to hundreds of thousands of dollars pour into their bank accounts during the show's finale, a glassy-eyed, almost drugged stupor took hold of them.

It was like watching a coked-up businessman fondle a stripper during a lap dance: naked human desire, stoked ridiculously for 10 weeks, then sated with a bacchanalia of "Block-tion" bids.

Hell, I felt it too. Half a million bucks! The surge of hardware- and fast-food-sponsored endorphins left me dreamy on my couch. Then, reflecting upon how superbly I was being manipulated, I, too, was overwhelmed by nausea.

As a franchise The Block was on its knees last year, with three from four properties passed in at auction. The fiction it peddled - renovate a house and months later you're rich - proved just that.

This year producers gave us fantasy mainlined to the brain - setting the reserves for the South Melbourne properties so low they guaranteed contestants a small fortune.

Brad's partner, Lara Welham went one better than her beau and myself, actually vomiting (with joy) after her shot of gratification, which saw the pair pocket more than $600,000.

"This could be life changing for all of us," said Brad, a sentiment giddily echoed by the other contestants, who like so many of us aren't content with simply being healthy, safe and having hot water.

2.7 million Aussies watched this consumer confection and I wonder how many went to bed that night dreaming of being the next big winners; of the cash, the property, the soft furnishings, the stuff they could buy.

Turning to Twitter, I expected a redemptive torrent of snark and cynicism about the show, only to find an overwhelming stream of "I'm so happy for them!" and "this is unbelievable!!"

Religion may well be the opiate of the people but nowadays it's a little old-fashioned compared with the meth-hit of consumerism; the result, a zombie-like lust for crap we do not need, for a house we cannot possibly fill, a life most of us will never lead.

The concept of "bread and circuses" to appease the masses has been with us since Roman times but I wonder how many of us realise the finely tuned soul smack of shows such as The Block owe as much to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud as they do Channel Nine's programming department?

In 1900, Freud shocked the world with his theories about mankind's primitive, hidden desires, but it was his little-known American nephew, Edward Bernays, who packaged this knowledge, and, some would argue, changed Western culture forever.

The award-winning BBC documentary The Century of the Self traces the roots of consumerism back to Freud and Bernays, widely held to be the inventor of modern "public relations".

"Bernays was the first person to take Freud's ideas about human beings and use them to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations ... how they could make people want things they didn't need by linking mass produced goods to their hidden desires," the doco says.

Bernays - who convinced American women to smoke cigarettes, kids to like soap and for all of us to eat eggs with our bacon - saw that if you continuously stimulated our irrational selves (seriously, is it rational to put artificial turf on your ceiling?), you could then satisfy our primitive desires with ... stuff, transforming the rambunctious "citizen" to a happy, docile "consumer".

Or Blockhead.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

40 comments so far

  • Personally I have never got the hype surrounding property and renovating. Spending weekends painting, plastering and working on the gardens to jazz a house up is my idea of hell. At a guess I think it relates to easy money. Get Rich quick schemes are never short of followers and property has been in a bubble for the last 20 years. Buy a house, give it a paint job, wait for a few years appreciation, sell and bang you are 6 figures richer.

    Good luck if you can pull it off but it is simply a speculative gamble hitting pay dirt. It is what appeals to people. Easier to do that than risk putting money and time into a business that may or may not be productive and requires work and creativity rather than hoping the price of an area will go up.

    The things you write about consumerism are half true but it isn't necessarily specific to shows like the block. The block just reflects the trend at the time. If buying and selling books generated quick money you would have a library equivalent show. Big money will attract its share of followers.

    Commenter
    Dale
    Date and time
    July 23, 2012, 7:03PM
    • I felt the same way you did Sam.

      Should I take pleasure in seeing these strangers given huge amounts of money? Does watching The Block make them my friends? Should I be interested in knowing any future good or misfortune that comes their way? Should I now feel compelled to vote them onto the all-stars show to have another chance at more riches?

      Why do we feel sorry for celebrities we've never met that go bankrupt, but we ignore homeless people many of us walk past every day on our way to work?

      Ironic that reality TV is our escape from reality.

      Commenter
      The J Dog
      Location
      Docklands
      Date and time
      July 24, 2012, 12:23PM
    • I think the fascination with property is really more to do with our innate need for shelter, they have taken this very basic need and manipulated and elevated it to what it is now...I think that is what Sam was getting at.

      Commenter
      S
      Date and time
      July 24, 2012, 1:23PM
  • Who needs a moral compass, consciousness, understanding, empathy or intelligence when you have swag?

    Commenter
    hired goon
    Date and time
    July 23, 2012, 8:17PM
    • Heheeee. Now this is the commentary of a genius ;)

      Commenter
      NicolaDreams
      Date and time
      July 24, 2012, 11:03AM
  • Bernays also taught the US leadership how to sell war to the masses, 80 years later it's still working a treat.

    Commenter
    kermit the log
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    July 23, 2012, 9:13PM
    • You had a bit of a whinge the other day about why we don't have nuanced and complex shows produced in Oz but this shows why we don't and proves my comment correct

      2.7m people watching a renovation show

      That's literally 2.7m people watching over-dramatised paint dry

      You couldn't pay me to watch that drivel ....... But 2.7m people.....

      There's your answer

      The bread and circuses thing goes right into the hedonic treadmill. We went from hunter-gatherers where every day was a fight to survive and our brain rewarded us for finding food and shelter. This was a simple reward mechanism that kept us going and kept us alive

      Now we don't have that. Food and shelter is pretty easy to get. But we still have the same mechanism compelling us to consume

      So, this is what we get.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      July 23, 2012, 10:41PM
      • The point of the expression "watching paint dry" is that you actually have to watch it, and watch it, and watch it some more. Its boring, and takes time.

        If shows like "the block" were really like watching paint dry, you'd have a live feed 24 hours a day. Which you don't. They condense all that boringness into 1 or 2 hours a week, so you don't have to "watch the paint dry".

        Commenter
        enno
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        July 24, 2012, 9:26AM
      • enno
        I've never watched the show, nor shows that are similar to it. I have been subjected to those lifestyle shows that my mum used to watch that had the odd bit of Shirley Strachan telling you how to renovate something. It really seems like watching paint dry. I don't care how much it is condensed or how much contrived drama is added or how many people are crying. I'm a big picture person that can't help stepping above that and seeing it for what it is.

        Commenter
        Bender
        Date and time
        July 24, 2012, 1:49PM
      • This coming from the guy who regularly spouts about the brilliance of Two and a Half Men? Come on now Bender, let's not get high and mighty about your television viewing.

        Commenter
        CarltonJenny
        Date and time
        July 24, 2012, 9:13PM

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