One of the weirder aspects of living in today’s high-tech society is increased confusion over what is or isn’t real. In a world where Photoshopped images are realistic enough to trick even hardened journalists, the old adage “the camera doesn’t lie” simply doesn’t apply anymore.
Still, when Swedish insurance company Folksam released an internet video featuring skydiving cats, you’d think most people would realize they were watching an artfully artificial event. But no. Folksam received numerous complaints from well-meaning people horrified at the idea a company would hurl defenseless cats out of airplanes.
YouTube commenters labeled the ad “cruel,” “disturbing” and “wrong.” In an interview on CNN, a Folksam representative had to reassure people the cats hadn’t really been skydiving. This is a little like plumbing services reassuring people their plumbing snakes are not real anacondas.
Just Gullible, or What?
Folksam filmed human skydivers and replaced them with cats in a green screen studio. Wind from electric fans gave the daredevil kittens a suitably windblown look. If the same techniques showed up in a Hollywood movie, few people would think it was anything other than special effects. So why were so many people fooled?
An argument can be made for gullibility, but something else more may be at work here. We’re conditioned to accept visual evidence as compelling. People trust the authority of images even more than the written word. When we see something that looks real, we tend to believe it.
Now granted, when something defies logic, we should question it. If the people fooled by skydiving cats took the time to read the ad’s video summary, they’d have learned the whole thing was rigged. But our first response to an image is instinctive; we believe because we see it.
Most of the time this is a practical survival skill. I see an oncoming car, so I get out of the way. In the fuzzy world of the Internet, however, this same skill leads to widespread postings of fake images, such as the one of a shark swimming in a flooded New Jersey street after Hurricane Sandy. It seems plausible, so we believe. I’ve fallen for a few fake images in my time, as have many other people.
Animals up the Ante
People seem especially likely to believe fake images when animals are involved. The people fooled by the Folksam commercial were, for the most part, sincere animal lovers. We’ve all heard tales of animal abuse, reports that have a gut-wrenching effect on many people.
The people fooled by the Folksam commercial were, perhaps, primed to believe animal abuse was involved because it is, sadly, so common. In addition, cute animals trigger strong emotional reactions.
If a central PA plumbing company used a green screen to replace a plumbing snake with a boa constrictor, chances are they’d receive fewer complaints than Folksam. But Folksam, wise to the ways of the internet, used cute little cats. And when pets are involved, some people think with their hearts, not their heads.