On the power of examples

painted rock

Damn this is some good signage, right? I took this picture on a bike ride in Lands End yesterday and I’ve been thinking a lot about it since then. There’s something incredibly efficient about the way it’s formulated.

There are of course several ways this sign could have been written, and I keep imagining the municipal conference room where some functionaries had to reject proposals until they came upon this winning formulation. Chief says “Alright everybody listen up, we really need to get the message across, people keeping dying out there on Painted Rock, it’s just so beautiful that they aren’t heeding our normal warnings.”

“Let’s spell it out in plain english,” ventures one cautious subordinate. “‘Severe Risk of Death’ will work perfectly, as always” he suggests.

“But the kids these days don’t believe in signs. And some of them are only enticed by risk,” replies the Chief. “We need to give the people a justification for our capricious decrees.”

“The problem is that the cliff has such a lovely name, Chief,” says another sycophant in the room. “We need to make the deterrent personal somehow.”

Indeed, it’s hard to read “People have fallen to their death from this point” without immediately considering that the very same could happen to you. Even without knowing who these people were or when they died, the imagery is powerful: numerous bodies falling, battered against jagged crags as they tumble to the sea below. This isn’t just death, it’s an experience of dying. In advertising something similar is going on with those graphic, gratuitous color pictures of various cancers on the exteriors of cigarette packs and the same is true when weight loss systems or balding cures sell you on John Doe’s individual results. “A” doesn’t merely do “B” but has literally, historically done “B” for “C.”

Our Inner Aristocrat

The problem is that people have this magical ability to believe in their own exceptional status. Consider the people who hopped the guard rail in my photograph. They read the sign and basically figured that though people have fallen to their death from Painted Rock, it won’t happen to them because they’re special or better or luckier or what have you. Even with a vivid rationale on offer, they have the temerity to think that the rules don’t apply to them.

Though the happiest people fight against and ultimately vanquish this narcissism, most people probably don’t. This is why the very best providers of hospitality and other services prey so capably on private fantasies of exceptionalism. It’s hard to turn down an opportunity for the world to confirm what you’ve always privately suspected about yourself.

The exception swallows the rule when everyone is unique and special, however. Pardon the prognostication, but after the epoch of customization (with its endless groveling about the “bespoke”) comes to an end I predict conformity will slowly obtain a special allure. When standing out will have lost its charisma, examples of fitting in will be the only believable ones. And when that day arrives, perhaps the Painted Rock sign might merely have to say “People agree the danger of visiting this point outweighs its beauty” to be effective.


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