maxbarry.com
Thu 11
Mar
2021

Leprosy and Orphans

What Max Reckons

Hi Max, do you think the limited availability of the corona vaccines is beneficial to the acceptance? What do you think the effect would be if someone would, hypothetically, shoot another person trying to get that person’s dose of the vaccine?

jonas

This is a great idea. You have a bright future ahead of you, Jonas, in marketing or as the head of some kind of dystopian government.

So we are talking about a Parmentier stunt. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was an 18th Century French land-owner who managed to convince people to eat potatoes, which had previously been considered to be a fine source of leprosy. It’s not easy to persuade people to eat things that cause leprosy, so let’s take a moment to admire that. Sometimes I hear people arguing that marketing doesn’t really have the power to persuade anyone, and I wish those people could travel back in time and look at French peasants putting perceived leprosy in their mouths.

Anyway, Parmentier hit upon the idea of posting guards all around his potato fields. That way, people thought the ultra-rich were hoarding potatoes for themselves. Then at nights, when the guards were instructed to go to sleep, peasants sneaked into the fields and stole potatoes and ate them. Then they didn’t get leprosy, so the word-of-mouth was good.

Parmentier was also in charge of France’s first compulsory vaccination program, for obvious reasons. If you can convince people to eat leprosy, you are a great person to lead a nationwide program that requires people to let drunk leech-doctors stick them with unwashed needles.

An easily-overlooked aspect of the anti-vax movement, I feel, is that vaccinations involve letting strangers put things you can’t see into your body. I’m strongly in favor of vaccines, but I have to admit, as a general principle, it is indeed a bad idea to let strangers put things you can’t see in your body. So I recognize why some people come at this from that default position.

Today, we have a solid history of the effects of vaccines, and it’s still hard to convince people to get them. In 1805, when doctors liked to try to cure SIDS by removing kids’ teeth, it was probably even tougher. Parmentier didn’t shoot anybody, as far as I’m aware, although it does sound like they vaccinated a lot of orphans up front, or, in marketing speak, initially targeted a low-risk demographic. People weren’t going to miss a few orphans, is what I’m saying.

What I especially like about Parmentier is that he engaged fantasy with fantasy. You think potatoes cause leprosy? Well, actually, they’re at the heart of a wealthy conspiracy. It’s always tempting to combat fantasy with reality, but that’s a loser’s gambit. You can almost never persuade anyone with the truth. But you can get them to believe a better story.

Comments

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Idan Ben-Barak (#7119)

Location: Melbourne
Posted: 191 days ago

Another great early marketing strategy for vaccines was celebrity endorsments. Not unlike Parmentier's Great Potato Swindle, Smallpox inoculation efforts really took off in Britain once the royal family vaccinated their own. They did lose a couple of kids in the process, though.

georgianpapers.com/2018/11/23/in-gods-hands-inoculating-the-royal-children-against-smallpox/


We've learned the lesson since, but it does come with the unfortunate price of seeing, on front-page news what our political leaders' pale upper arm areas actually look like.

Rod Jones (#7935)

Location: San Diego, CA
Quote: ""Life is hard, but it's harder if you're stupid"-Mark Twain"
Posted: 191 days ago

Good to see that you wrote something interesting while entirely sidestepping the original question. Have you ever applied to be a press secretary or public relations speaker?

Abrum Alexander (#8221)

Location: Vermont, USA
Quote: "She picked up her steel cup and took a sip. ‘Well then,’ she said. ‘Sounds like progress.’"
Posted: 190 days ago

Max, this was very interesting to read.

I think you make a good point about how it's almost impossible to persuade anyone with the truth. And you're right.

Honestly, I think that people almost always act out of emotion and not logic, like what they did in your example. They acted out of emotion because they were scared of getting a disease. The logical side would be to listen to the truth.

Of course, over time, they did, but not immediately.

Machine Man subscriber SexCpotatoes (#2188)

Location: Navarre, Ohio
Quote: ""Democracy is the theory that the common man knows what he wants, and deserves to get it good and hard." - H. L. Mencken"
Posted: 190 days ago

This reminds me of the factoid I read somewhere that back in the day, people mass-hysterically believed that Polio was caused by ice cream. Seriously. They didn't know what to believe, and kids love ice cream, so obviously every kid that got polio had eaten ice cream.

We have to be careful in flooding the market with stupidity, because it gets way too many decent innocent people killed. I miss the days when conspiracy theories were harmless and fun thought exercises, not cult propaganda designed and ruthlessly refined to turn people into neo-nazis.

I do like how scientist cratered the international market for rhino horns by flooding it with lab-manufactured powdered keratin (fingernails), to the point where poaching is no longer a viable business.

Machine Man subscriber Jason Wallwork (#4608)

Location: Peterborough, ON, Canada
Quote: "Soylent Green is people."
Posted: 189 days ago

"People weren’t going to miss a few orphans, is what I’m saying."

I see what you did there and it's dark but still funny.

But regarding that marking approach, that's an interesting idea. Let only rich people (or celebrities but I repeat myself) get the vaccine and see if uptake is higher after they demand it. Not that we should do it, but wouldn't it be an interesting experiment, I mean if people didn't die and stuff. That's the part that might make it unethical a tad.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 189 days ago

@Abrum Alexander:
> Honestly, I think that people almost always act out of emotion and not logic, like what they
> did in your example. They acted out of emotion because they were scared of getting a disease.
> The logical side would be to listen to the truth.

This is something I have to remind myself in writing, too. When characters behave with perfect logic, they feel thin. You can't fault their decisions, but still, they don't feel like real people.

It's richer and more plausible when characters make decisions for emotional reasons. They have to be able to justify it to themselves, of course. But if they can, an emotional decision will always feel more real than a logical one.

This can be handy when trying to untie plot problems, because you don't necessarily need a logical reason for someone to do something... you just need a way for them to feel it's logical.

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 186 days ago

> When characters behave with perfect logic, they feel thin. You can't fault
> their decisions, but still, they don't feel like real people.

It might work for aliens/psychopaths/robots, though.
On the other hand, I guess there's a reason they made Spock half-human, and made Data want to be human.


> Sometimes I hear people arguing that marketing doesn’t really have the power to persuade anyone [..]

Isn't that usually more in the context of the discussion "people are helpless puppets to the whims of marketing and can be made to do anything" vs "people are rational beings and make perfect decisions based on the information they have"? Neither of which extreme is true.
And fortunately a lot of marketing cancels each other out anyway. I mean, Coke and Pepsi can't both convince me to only buy their brand.

And if those peasants hadn't been starving, they probably still wouldn't have eaten potatoes. On the other hand, if someone had just invented french fries, I doubt they would have needed such an elaborate ruse to get them started.

Funnily enough, leprosy didn't even exist in the Americas (origin site of the potato) until the Europeans got there.

Brenda (#7217)

Location: Berowra Bushland
Quote: "entering your world via the book portal is awesome"
Posted: 185 days ago

"You can almost never persuade anyone with the truth. But you can get them to believe a better story".

Get ready for the new narrative around Covid-19 vaccination. Storytelling will be the core persuasive marketing tool as pharma and governments roll-out their vaccines.

Already the Coke vs Pepsi brand fight has started. Will you ask for Pfizer or Astra Zeneca or should you hold out for Novavax.

As a celebrity endorsement how effective was the vision of our prime ministers pale upper arm getting jabbed?

Shoe (#4776)

Location: D.C. Suburb
Quote: "“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” —Muriel Rukeyser"
Posted: 185 days ago

It's always easier to convince people of a simple lie than of a complex truth, when the lie "makes sense" to them, and the truth doesn't.

When our ethics block us from using convenient lies to get people to do the right thing, but doesn't stop the opposition because they do not share that ethic, we automatically allow ourselves to be in a one-down position.

Quite the conundrum: Be ethical and honest, and allow humans to be lead to slaughter with lies about dangerous vaccines, and non-dangerous energy production, or decide to be dishonest and lack ethics, in order to work out compelling lies that will help folks feel better about vaccines and feel worse about using fossil fuels. The second option leads to healthier humans and healthier globe, the first one feels more right.

There's something very wrong with the system.

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