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Today is a FREE taste of an Insight Politics article by new writer Nathan Smith.

Masks Are the Egg in the Cake Mix

Everyone in marketing has heard the great legend of the egg in the instant cake mix. It’s a legend because although it is not entirely true, it tells us something true about humans and, it turns out, government.

The story goes a bit like this.

In the late 1940s, American psychologist and marketing guru Ernest Dichter was hired by baking manufacturer General Mills to learn why its “just add water” cake mix was sitting on the shelves. Dichter’s pioneering Freudian research (your mileage may vary on the method) was about the “mobilisation and manipulation of human needs as they exist in the consumer”, and he promised to solve the riddle.

Dichter started by asking women how they felt about using the cake mix. Surprisingly, the women reported a sense of guilt, along with a bit of self-indulgence. It was too easy, they said, and it felt like a lie to serve a fake cake to their family. “This is typical of what the average housewife said: ‘Yes, I’m using a cake mix; it saves me a lot of trouble but I really shouldn’t,’” Dichter wrote later.

His solution? Let the housewives do something small to finish the recipe, like cracking a fresh egg into the mix. General Mills then removed the dried egg ingredient and changed its marketing to suit. The company was astounded to watch sales for the cake mix rise once again. Job done!

Researchers have since tempered Dichter’s insight by saying the success was a bit more complicated. The original dried egg recipe meant the instant mix stuck to the pan and made the whole batch taste faintly of egg, which turned women off the product. Other studies suggest the sales uptick was due to younger women having more things to do with their time and looking for a quick fix, even if the cakes tasted funny.

Yet persuasion experts (which is what marketers are) also understand that to get a person to do a big thing, you should ask them to do a small thing first.

Let me give you another cartoonish example. Say you’ve gone to a person’s house to get them to sign on the dotted line. Before you do, try asking to borrow their house keys so you can let yourself back in after you grab the correct documents from the car. The person is much more likely to sign since trusting you with the house keys – a symbol of everything precious to them – makes completing a contract trivial by comparison. Small leads to big.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I think face masks are like the egg in a cake mix.

A year ago, medical professionals knew masks are not primarily about limiting breath. Since viruses and bacteria can live on surfaces, and humans touch their face 23 times per hour, masks are about helping to stop 44% of those touches from interacting with a mucous membrane (mouth or nose).

But since Covid-19, studies were quickly created to change this assumption. It’s still not clear today whether masks do help cut the spread of the virus because for every study proving this point, another soon arrives to rebut the claim. We need more data to be sure, but it’s likely masks help somewhat.

On the other hand, some new studies also suggest Covid-19 isn’t transmitted on “fomites” (a fancy medical term for surfaces or materials) at all. If this were true, it would make Covid-19 different from every other coronavirus known, all of which tend to survive on surfaces anywhere from two hours to nine days, depending on the material. Again, we need more data.

Wearing a face mask makes a bit of sense. But why are people wearing masks outdoors? Or while alone in cars? Good question.

When you connect this absurdity with the government’s “team of five million” message, it begins to look remarkably like the advertising techniques of Pillsbury, another baking manufacturer, which ran a campaign decades ago called: “You and Ann Pillsbury can make a great team.”

Interesting. So now the question becomes: why do the government and business use the same persuasion tactics? Because they work. More precisely: because without those tactics, the whooshing sound of the existential vacuum among the Kiwi public would be heard from space.

Think about this from the government’s perspective. The core responsibility of any organisation calling itself a “government” is security. It is the top priority. All other goals are secondary, because if you can’t maintain security then you don’t have sovereignty and you aren’t the government. Simple.

And while in normal times this monopoly of violence (which is what security is) usually goes unnoticed, crises can make it noticeable.

The ideal situation is when the public’s impression of security and the delivery of real security nest together like Russian matryoshka dolls. In other words, Kiwis should simultaneously believe they are safe and actually be safe. In the early days of Covid-19, this balance was broken. New Zealanders lost faith that they were secure because the government proved it could not keep New Zealanders secure.

The government has worked tirelessly to restore the status quo ante ever since. However, fixing it requires maintaining another crucial balance: security must only ever be on the edge of our minds, not staring us in the face. No one likes police checkpoints. Personal impotency is only acceptable if you aren’t constantly reminded about it.

The dilemma is this: if a government loses security, it must do everything necessary to get it back. Otherwise, as pointed out earlier, it will no longer be the government. But the public, by definition, cannot help to restore security because of the principal–agent problem in which the agent (government) has the specific power of making decisions that affect the principal (public), but not the other way around.

To avoid the public defecting (big thing) during a crisis, the government might ask the public to buy war bonds or wear a face mask (small thing) to help bind the two in a pseudo-trust relationship.

This is how a face mask is a bit like the egg in the cake mix. The key is that the Leviathan government is always trying to sell the idea that it – not you – has responsibility for security, just as Pillsbury wants to sell the idea that an instant cake mix is the same as a real cake.

But if you want to see what’s really going on, don’t think about where the lines are drawn, think about all the lines you could be drawing, but are being told not to.

Simply put, if the government can no longer guarantee security, then it’s every man or woman for themselves. Play this out. If a deadly virus is coming from outside, then a perfectly reasonable public response may be to shoot down any incoming planes. People may also reasonably consider putting everyone who coughs into a giant pit until they either die or get well again.

In other words, in an anarchy the list of actions the public can do to regain security is quite literally endless. Yet the only ones you are being offered are to 1) stay at home and 2) wear a face mask. This is how the government asks to borrow your keys so you won’t notice that the social contract is about giving the government even tighter control over your personal security.

Again, whether face masks work is beside the point. What’s important is that when a government appears to lose security, it must recover it. The public, by necessity, cannot help with this. And yet the government must avoid explicitly revealing our impotence. Convincing Kiwis to voluntarily wear a face mask is the perfect way to maintain this unspoken social contract.

This is how power works. The status quo cannot survive any other way. Because if you thought the Covid conspiracy theories were bad, imagine how Kiwis would react to the unmistakable evidence that they are both powerless and the government could not guarantee security. Like I said, the existential vacuum would be heard from orbit.

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