Peter York On Ads: Why we'll all buy in to a good conspiracy theory

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The Independent Online

In the week following the attacks of 11 September, 2001, Newsnight organised a London/Islamabad link-up to discuss the implications. Similar panels of chattering classes, media and professional types were lined up in each city. London wasn't talking to the "Arab Street" that night, more like the Muslim Smith Square and Primrose Hill. But at one point one of the Pakistani contributors - a lawyer, academic, whatever - said with jaw-dropping conviction that he knew the whole thing was a Jewish plot and all the Jews in the building had been on holiday.

Shortly afterwards Gore Vidal - never dull - went global with his suspicions. Why hadn't jets scrambled in seconds in the most expensively guarded nation in the world? Who was doing what where in the US government when it happened? Then Michael Meacher - yes, Michael Meacher of the whole is-he-middle-class-or-what storm of a few years before, that's Michael Meacher of the environment and the provincial academic style, no David Icke he - wrote a piece broadly echoing the Vidal line. The conclusion was that some people resembling Jon Ronson's Them, a group of secret manipulators, had pulled a fast one on the world.

Through 2006 there's been a convincing-looking internet film, Loose Change, that seems to show that way back in the 1960s the American Secret Services were playing with the idea of staged attacks of the Pearl Harbour / 11 September variety. And some of them involved organising civil aviation crashes. Apparently 10 million viewers have seen it already. See what you think when it comes your way.

Equally, somewhere in the Dianasphere that whole conspiracy rattles on despite Lord Stevens's report. Why has it all taken nine years? Why, despite all the logic, are there so many half-per cents remaining?

One reason people believe conspiracy theories (there are many, including predisposition and prejudice, the wish to make life more exciting, and to make oneself look clever and insiderish) is simply that such a lot of conspiring goes on. When I first started to learn about marcoms ("marketing communications") an age ago and saw a little of the smarter ranks of PR and lobbying, I realised that people were putting up "front organisations" all the time. So many of the ostensibly spontaneous "People Against..." and "Mothers For..." in America certainly come out of big, organised pockets. And it happens here too. There are books commissioned to provide a text and a talking point to support somebody's investment programme. (Yet the groovy boys of Shoreditch still think they invented "viral marketing" in 1997.)

When proper post-war histories come to be written of the disinformation campaigns run about, say, smoking and health, cholesterol and hearts, and the relationship of energy use to climate change, then the scale of the conspiring done by nice above-board people in nice places will be clearer. And if they've been doing all that, what on earth are the real secret services doing. Some are, one suspects, actually rather duller and more Civil Servicey - Stella Rimington and Eliza Manningham-Buller don't look that conspiratorial. But eventually things have to be made to happen, people have to be stopped or disappeared and whatever it is has to be cleaned up and hosed down and blended back into daylight logic. And that certain knowledge is fitfully flickering in the heads of tens of millions who've seen half a documentary on JFK, Monroe, Diana or 11 September.

It's this stuff that HSBC, the great global Anglo-Asian banking group, is playing with in its new advertising (about the only thing I've seen this month without a Christmas promotion attached). HSBC has been telling us for years that it has got world knowledge, understands people and their hugely various ways and knows enough not to pull earlobes in Transylvania or clink glasses in Highgrove. This comparative ethnography stuff is obviously designed for viewers who think of themselves as world citizens and global players. It's not going to do much for people who're only worried about mortgage rates.

One characteristic of those wannabe wonks is a lively interest in conspiracy theories of all kinds. Particularly the "they've done it already" sort (as in "the Nazis had mobile phones during the war"). So they show a glorious black and white international convention hall, a Rio southern hemisphere international medical conference, with a bearded bloke, the archetypal Doctor X international scientist, on the platform and sensible types applauding. And the voice-over, the tremendously measured, slightly wry, acceptably RP voice-over, is telling you things derived from international polling. Apparently 30 per cent of Brazilians think human cloning will never happen. On the screen we can see this science is provoking protests in the streets (a classic secret state manoeuvre), Citizens Against Cloning. But 34 percent of Americans see human cloning happening some time soon. Our bearded scientist looks ever more beleaguered as he works his way round the international conference circuit. But 55 percent of Taiwanese - and they're damn clever - think human cloning has already happened. Somewhere. In secret.

And they end with a scene in a log cabin somewhere (Siberia? Saskatchewan?) with the bearded boyo and his two perfect clones playing house together. HSBC of Shanghai and Salisbury, the world's local bank: you've read the world of suburban secret societies perfectly, and they'll love it.

Peter@sru.co.uk

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