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January Issue

Vol 30|No 3|January 2020

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The Mind Candy Café

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Even though this article was first published more than twenty years ago in 1998, its warnings and predictions have proven sadly accurate. New information and entertainment technologies have spawned a culture of mindless followership and a careless acceptance of demagoguery. Mind bites and mind candy are attractive and seductive.

Many of the concepts and paragraphs remain as true today as they were back then and needed no updating. The trends that took root back then have reached an epidemic state with the winds of change threatening basic democratic norms. What was unthinkable back then has become sadly fashionable today.

Along with the many new information products flooding the marketplace, we are seeing a transformation of the way young people and adults come to know and understand their world.

With the shift toward electronic media and information, the challenge of knowing and comprehending is complicated by a movement toward superficial and plastic coverage. Deep thinking, deep reading and deep commentary are replaced in many quarters by Sound Bites, Mind Bites, Eye Candy and Mind Candy.

Replacing Truth with Placebo

Truth is an endangered species, almost extinct and barely recognizable. The information landscape is flooded with so many lies and distortions, it is now difficult to determine what is credible. What is even more disturbing is the susceptibility of many who have unplugged their critical thinking and enjoyed surfing the rising tide of truthiness, conspiracy theories and distortions. Rejecting truth like some antiquated notion is a bit like skinny dipping in a hot pool of discontent.


Something that is used to appease or reassure another.
American Heritage Dictionary
It may look like a real pill but contain no medicine.

The implications for schools are dramatic. As schools are confronted by these new information sources, many of which are driven more by marketing and entertainment than sound educational philosophy, the teaching of information literacy becomes critically important as an antidote to the simulacra* and virtual truths which now parade as news and information.

*simulacra - images of the real thing.

Important Definitions

Just what is meant by Sound Bites, Mind Bites, Eye Candy and Mind Candy?

1. Sound Bites are brief (15 to 30 second) media spots, often commissioned by politicians or interest groups, which attempt to state a position or explain an argument on a complex subject or issue. Since time is scarce and word limits tight, sound bites rely upon key words, phrases and images to make their point. Packaging (a flag waving in the background, for example) is often more important than the actual words and content. The medium is more important than the message. Ideas are condensed in simple, highly compact terms.

2. Mind Bites are related to sound bites but more apt to show up in traditional print media as they attempt to keep pace with their electronic relatives. Tweets are the mind bites of this decade, with leaders of all kinds bombarding us and each other with very short messages about previously complicated issues and events.

The collective appetite for evidence, truth and reason has declined. Vast numbers of citizens have become susceptible and easily manipulated. It is like the novel, 1984, but this is not reality TV.

3. Eye Candy is a term first applied to the enticing format of programs such as MTV along with gorgeous models and people. We have come to expect dazzling displays of graphic virtuosity with fast moving video and musical elements that grab the viewer's attention forcefully and intensely. Once again we see that packaging may be more important than content.

4. Mind Candy is a term arising out of the World Wide Web and more recent developments in the news and entertainment world. We see difficult and troubling content simplified and sweetened for general consumption. We also see the definition of news blurring as some stories seem to flourish free of facts and evidence. The line once separating news and entertainment has frequently faded as some "news" stories take on a "circus" or "arcade" flavor.

Simple, appealing solutions to complicated problems are the currency of many politicians and demagogues.

Scapegoating is a favorite tactic - blaming the Jews, the Mexicans, the Italians, the Blacks, the immigrants, the Catholics, the Muslims, the WASPs or some other group (depending upon the time period) often wins lots of support from angry people.

Policy proposals simply packaged are another tactic. Lacking in detail and highly unlikely to ever pass through Congress, these are the political equivalent of M&M's.

"Medicare for all!" and "Free college for all!" are examples of mind candy that have figured prominently in the debates between Democratic candidates for the Presidency. In both cases, the short phrases promise much that would appeal to major segments of the voting public, but the actual proposals are far more complicated and less likely to win majority support even if the Democrats won majorities in both houses of Congress in the 2020 election.

"Build a wall!" is one of President Trump's prized examples of mind candy meant to win votes from those who are angry about illegal immigration — a project he originally promised Mexico would fund.

Once elected to office, he switched tactics and pressured Congress to build his wall with funds raised from American taxpayers.

Teaching students to recognize mind candy

Teachers may find it difficult to approach this challenge in a decade when politics are intensely polarized. Given the large number of adults who have swallowed the mind candy of the Left or the Right, parents may not welcome school experiences that encourage their children to probe below the surface and think critically about cherished notions.

One way to explore these concepts without arousing wrath and controversy is to focus on leaders and mind candy of the past. The goal is to arm students with the basic concepts while teaching them how to recognize mind candy for themselves, effectively inoculating them against manipulation by marketing pros and politicians.

In the USA, Huey Long would provide some rich examples of mind candy.

"Every man a king!" was one of his favorite appeals. There are Web pages devoted to his most interesting quotations like this one. Students could learn a great deal about mind candy, demagoguery and manipulations by studying his words and methods. There are also videos of him speaking on YouTube like the one below in which he speaks of "Sharing the wealth."

Robert Penn Warren's novel, All the King's Men makes for good reading about the inner workings of the mind candy factory. The movie based on this book is powerful.

Ken Burns developed a film about Long for PBS - https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/huey-long.

Possible discussions questions:

  • How did Huey Long rise to power?
  • What are the best examples of his offering mind candy?
  • Why does mind candy work?
  • What was true and what was false?
  • Why would someone want to kill him?

Once students develop a firm understanding of mind candy, the teacher can send them out to find examples from advertising.

With global warming becoming a topic of great concern to many, whether they believe it or dismiss it, ads from the fossil fuel industry are worthy of careful analysis. For those intent on strengthening media literacy skills, we engage students in deconstructing videos to see what techniques are being used to influence the viewer.

You will find detailed suggestions and strategies that nurture media literacy in my article, "Questioning Video, Film, Advertising and Propaganda: Deconstructing Media Messages."

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