Out of Sight

Here is a man who does not know when to quit.

On Monday, exactly one week after being told he cannot force New Yorkers to drink less soda, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his newest idea to force New Yorkers to smoke less tobacco.

The idea is to prohibit most businesses that sell cigarettes from displaying them publicly, relegating their presence to behind and beneath the counter.  Customers of legal age would retain the right to purchase them, of course, but a greater effort would be required simply to determine whether the establishment sells them at all.

The psychological assumptions underpinning this scheme are fairly self-evident, but fascinating nonetheless.  In promoting this “out of sight, out of mind” approach to tobacco sales, Bloomberg and allies are banking on the theory, supported by research, that dangling a product directly in front of a person’s nose has a measurable influence on his or her decision to purchase it.  By extension, then, forbidding such displays will reduce an item’s sales figures.

Some critics of the proposal have swiftly and predictably adopted the “slippery slope” argument for this case.  If cigarettes are made fair game for government regulation of this sort, where does it end?  Are other health hazards such as candy and soda next?

This is, I must say, a highly amusing prospect.  After all, if convenience stores really were induced to conceal any product that could possibly do a customer harm, their shelves would very quickly come to resemble the liquor store whiskey aisle on the day after St. Patrick’s, and the back of the counter like the stateroom in A Night at the Opera.

That is to say, in other words, that the experience of convenience store shopping would become much more similar to the current experience of shopping online.

Consider:  When we wander onto a site such as Amazon, we might not know precisely what we intend to buy, but we nonetheless need to have a general idea in order to find the bloody thing.  We cannot scan the virtual shelves, as it were, for they are nearly infinite.  Yes, the Internet is now capable of recommending products based on past purchases, but all the same, shopping in today’s world is essentially an exercise in personal initiative.

In this way, funnily enough, I am put in mind of the evolution of Facebook.  While the social networking behemoth has undergone myriad cosmetic alterations in its near-decade of life, probably the most significant was the introduction of the “news feed” in the fall of 2006.  In Facebook’s earliest days, if you wanted to know what a particular “friend” was up to, you needed to run a search to find out.  The onus for acquiring information was on you.

With the news feed, by contrast, you are positively inundated with your fellows’ cyber activities, regardless of your interest in them.  The initiative on your part has shifted from seeking content to averting it—if you truly wish to avoid the comings and goings of certain friends, you must adjust your personal settings accordingly.  Otherwise, they will continue to present themselves before your very eyes.

By no means is this trend toward unlimited, unsought information universal.  On the contrary, there is a very eloquent case, made by many, for the inherent strength of newspapers over Internet-based news from the observation that to read a newspaper, page by page, is to encounter stories one might easily and unwittingly ignore on the web, which offers users the freedom to decide, in advance, which sorts of headlines their browser will collect and display.

So maybe Mayor Bloomberg’s latest evil plot to make New York City a healthy place to live will fare better than the last, with a fair number of people paying no attention to those smokes behind the curtain.  The science behind the power of visual cues is on Bloomberg’s side, as is our culture’s natural tendency to be distracted and drawn away from what is not directly in front of us.

What is left to combat, however, is our equally natural and equally strong inclination to get what we want, no matter the cost or inconvenience.  Not to mention the rather troublesome “forbidden fruit” dynamic, whereby the more rigorously a particular product is withheld, the more passionately it is desired.

Which of these considerations will prevail in New York?  We shall see.

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