Hype," says Bob Thompson, the editor of a series of books about television, "has become its own art form." The Egyptians were good at making pyramids. The Athenians were good at philosophy. The 14th-century Florentines were good at painting, Thompsons says. "We're good at selling snake oil. We're good at hyping stuff. In fact, that's probably the one thing America does better than anything else."
Hype, it seems, has become the engine that drives the world. It informs us of what we have not yet seen, and it makes us believe that seeing it is necessary. It sells ideas; it sells merchandise; it sells ideas as merchandise. Hype makes everything more and less important than it actually is.
And if America truly is the Holy Land of hype, "Star Wars" mastermind George Lucas probably deserves the title of messiah. It's still about 10 weeks until the release of "Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," but the publicity is already omnipresent.
Though there's no empirical way to measure media saturation, "The Phantom Menace" has the potential to be the most hyped media event of the nearly finished 20th century -- and that conscious overkill only makes people want it more.
"One of the most exciting things about the film industry is the hype," Thompson says. "Hype makes these kinds of movies into the multimedia, cross-geographical phenomenon that they are. 'Star Wars' -- as a film -- is not nearly as exciting as the fact that we can exist in the 'Star Wars' milieu for months: We can eat it in Happy Meals, we can sleep on it with 'Star Wars' sheets, and we can enrich our blood with 'Star Wars' vitamins. The universe is now re-created seven or eight times a year."
"Hype" is a relatively new word in the English lexicon. The New Dictionary of American Slang dates it to the mid-19th century, and says the origin is unknown. But there are plenty of theories: Some think it derives from the word "hypodermic" (a so-called "injection" of publicity), while others suggest it stems from "hyperbole" or "hyper." However, just about everyone seems to agree that the word was popularized by the public relations industry during the 1950s and '60s.
Of course, the origin of hype isn't nearly as compelling as its growth as a cultural juggernaut. Hype is now seen as an inescapable reality that just about everyone hates -- mostly because hype usually supersedes whatever it intends to publicize.
Douglas Rushkoff, author of "Media Virus," says the main culprit is technology. The 37-year-old cultural commentator thinks advances in mass media have changed the way we process information: We can change the past through "spin control," and we can change the future by how we hype it.
"Thanks to inventions like the VCR, our experience with the media is less dependent on time," Rushkoff says. "Live events have become less important than the way they're recorded. We are less tied to real events happening in real time. For example, take John Glenn's [recent] rocket launch: Most of the time, we were either watching previews of the event or reviews of what already happened. The event itself was over in seconds."
We no longer consume just the content of media; we also consume the media itself. In the case of "The Phantom Menace," that means people can be interested in the film without caring [or even knowing] about the plot or the actors.
In the example of "The Phantom Menace," Rushkoff suspects the latter. He's no great fan of the "Star Wars" series, but he doesn't doubt its social impact. People care about this story.