A bizarre story from a few towns over from my home is making national headlines. This (not a joke) is the official seal of the village of Whitesboro:
Not surprisingly, a local resident noticed and started a petition to remove the offensive-looking seal. The story goes that the seal actually depicts a “friendly wrestling match” between the village founder Hugh White, and the local Indian chief. Even if this is accurate, perception is reality and it’s not a shock that the village decided that it probably needed to change.
Enter the Daily Show.
This is comedy gold. The seal looks like something that someone created as a joke. Plus the town is called “Whitesboro” with a founder named Hugh White. They couldn’t ask for more.
So they sprung into action. The Daily Show Staff contacted the village for a story. Now, if you’ve ever seen “The Daily Show” you know that these “news segments” often shed light on ridiculous and backwards thinking in a harsh, yet funny manner.
The mayor of Whitesboro Patrick O’Connor and village board knew how this could look for their village so they decided to take steps to try and prevent the mockery.
O’Connor explained the process in a released statement:
Months ago, the village board was contacted by both the Daily Show and the Nightly Show from Comedy Central. Realizing that it was inevitable that our community was going to be the focus of such a controversial issue, the village board felt that it would be more beneficial to participate in the process as opposed to running the risk of having anything and everything be said about our village, its residents, and its history in a one-sided, comedic barrage.
As a result of their participation, the Daily Show offered the assistance of its extremely skilled graphics department to create the viable choices that were to be voted on as alternatives to our current seal.
So because of The Daily Show’s call, a vote was planned.
The Daily Show all-but-guaranteed the funniest outcome
The citizens of Whitesboro didn’t vote “keep the seal” or “change the seal.” Instead they voted on 9 options, including the original, one from a local artist, and 7 from The Daily Show graphics team.
At Monday night’s vote, one alternative seal was created by a local artist and showed a placid river scene. Others were created by “The Daily Show” and ranged from the bland — a brown hand clasping a white one — to the bizarre. There was a white settler and an Indian beating up a British soldier; a white man and an Indian apparently dancing; and one with pictures of former NHL player and Whitesboro resident Robert Esche. (AP)
The mayor defended this mockery in his statement:
“While some of the seals were clearly created for comedic relief, there were several exceptional and viable choices for the residents to choose from,” O’Connor said.
So what’s the problem?
Well, one resident, in an Associated Press story illustrates the issue:
Village resident Sally Creaser was taken aback when she arrived at the village hall to cast her vote, thinking it was just a yes-or-no vote on whether to keep the seal or seek an alternative that would be designed after further discussion.
The Daily Show, manipulating small-town politicians since 1996, knew that a vote to keep the seal makes for a much more amusing story than if the residents voted to change the seal and everyone moved on.
Just listen to this clip from Stephen Colbert:
So how did they do it?
Well it all comes down to the “Paradox of Choice.” Basically, it’s easy to vote “yes” or “no.” You have two choices. When 8 other options are introduced, your brain doesn’t want to take the time and mental energy to process and evaluate each one — especially in the evening when you are standing in a village hall trying to figure out dinner after working all day.
We like to think that “more is better” but the truth is, it’s not. Harvard Business Review explains in this experiment:
“Shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.”
We do this all the time — always buying the same brand of common purchases, gravitating toward certain fit and patterns in our clothes, and even drinking at the same bars and eating at the same restaurants. (Here’s more on the paradox of choice from Ramit Sethi)
So, a simple “yes” or “no” vote may have had quite a different outcome. But by creating 9 options, The Daily Show engineered the outcome they wanted. People when faced with 9 options, go for the default… even when the default isn’t ideal.
Then, because of cognitive dissonance, villagers justified their vote with the arguments for the seals such as tradition and political correctness gone awry.
This of course, plays right into the Daily Show’s hand, making the village look like a bunch of racist hicks.
“These alternate seals were the focus of The Daily Show’s staff. They also were very interested in filming reactions to those seals from Whitesboro residents (WKTV).”
The segment hasn’t aired yet, and my theory is that the village board and mayor will not be happy with the depiction of the village, despite their efforts to “cooperate with the process”