What is a pseudo-event?

A pseudo-event is an event that is planned for the purposes of being covered in the media. By being successfully covered in the media, whatever ideas the event promotes become more real. (The term was coined in Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1961 book, The Image. I’ve written a summary of The Image.)

Characteristics of pseudo-events

  1. Pseudo-events are planned, not spontaneous.
  2. Pseudo-events are created so they can be reported.
  3. Pseudo-events are only ambiguously related to reality.
  4. Pseudo-events are self-fulfilling. The event is evidence of the thing the event was planned to illustrate.

Example of a pseudo-event

In The Image, Boorstin uses the example of a hotel whose anniversary is coming up. They reach out to leaders in the community to form a committee: A banker, a society matron, a lawyer, a preacher.

The committee plans a banquet to celebrate the thirty years of service the hotel has given the community. They invite journalists to the banquet to take photos and report it in the newspapers.

The thirtieth anniversary banquet didn’t happen spontaneously: The hotel created a committee for it.

The main reason to have the banquet was to generate press. If the hotel was so valuable, would they have to task members of the community with planning the banquet?

It was hardly real. But since this contrived banquet happened, it served as evidence that the hotel was, in fact, valuable to the community.

Images beget images

Pseudo-events are in higher demand than actual spontaneous events for several reasons:

  1. Pseudo-events can be planned to be more dramatic.
  2. Pseudo-events are easier to spread (you can have the news release ready to go before the pseudo-event happens – Boorstin points out it should be called a news “holdback”).
  3. Pseudo-events are easily repeated.
  4. Pseudo-events cost money to produce, so there’s more incentive to spread them (the publicist wants to show results, the client wants those results, the journalists need something to write about).
  5. Pseudo-events make more sense (they are planned, after all).
  6. Pseudo-events are more memetic. They have elements people want to spread.
  7. Pseudo-events are social currency. Knowing about pseudo-events happening in the world becomes a test of being “informed” – something that’s encouraged on the societal level.
  8. Pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events.

The effects of pseudo-events

As pseudo-events spread in our image-based media, they change what we value in our culture. Pseudo-events affect who we look up to in society, how we travel, and what art we value.

Pseudo-events and heroes

As Boorstin points out, today, our heroes are our celebrities. We don’t make them famous because they are great – we think they are great because they are famous.

Celebrities know that to be celebrities they need to get in the news and stay there. They create pseudo-events of themselves, including intensifying their images by publicizing relationships between one another.

Meanwhile, dead people who deserve to be heroes fall into the background – they won’t hire a publicist, and journalists get nothing out of writing about them.

Pseudo-events and travel

Travel has become a tautology. At the time Boorstin wrote The Image, in 1962, that meant traveling to Mount Sinai to see where they filmed the movie The Ten Commandments – or traveling to Rome to see if the Trevi Fountain really looks like it did in the movie Three Coins in the Fountain. Today, we go to see the places we’ve seen on Instagram, then take a selfie to…post to Instagram.

Pseudo-events and movies

The mass-distribution of actors in movies spawned the star system. Movie-goers wanted to see stars with a distinctive look, such as Mary Pickford’s golden curls or Charlie Chaplin’s bowed legs and cane.

By being put on film, actors no longer get direct feedback from their audiences, like they did on stage. Actors aren’t tested by how well they interpret the story – the story is tested by how well it displays the actor.

The “bestselling” book is a pseudo-event

The publishing industry became driven by what Boorstin calls best-sellerism. Printing books costs money, so publishers started planning “reprints” before they even released the originals.

A paperback publisher wouldn’t plan their paperback until they had a contract to print the hardback. The hardback publishers wouldn’t print a hardback until they had a contract to print the paperback.

Either contract served as evidence the book was popular, which would drive sales. Booksellers only wanted to order new books they were sure would be bestsellers.

Yet the public became so obsessed with purchasing bestsellers, bookstores couldn’t carry the really big bestsellers. Retail stores like Macy’s would sell them below cost to attract customers, thus making bookstores unable to compete.

Learn more about pseudo-events in my The Image summary

If you want to learn more about pseudo-events read my summary of Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image. It’s one of my picks of best media studies books.

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