Thank You for Smoking and claims in fiction

In the movie Thank You for Smoking, Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for a cigarette company. He goes to see Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) about major motion picture product placement. They discuss what kind of movie would be best to maximize the cigarettes’ appeal. In this scene Nick and Jeff discuss the counterfactual entailments of placing cigarettes in certain environments.

Here, Nick and Jeff discuss what facts about our world would have to be changed within the movie in order for cigarettes to seem appealing. The social stigma around smoking would have to change in contemporary society. And some fact about fire in an environment of pure oxygen would have to be changed in a space station. The point here is that both Nick and Jeff know there are limits to fiction. Viewers will reject movies that do not comply with the laws that govern possible worlds.

Fiction writers are free to change just about any fact about our world. Magic, time travel, talking animals and so on. However, the viewer (or reader) will always try to imagine whether the events of the fiction could actually obtain, given the natural laws within the fiction. Whenever a fiction violates some natural law or state of affairs that we the viewers know to be the case, the viewer will reject that part of the fiction. We would reject seeing cigarette use going unquestioned in current society just as we would reject fire in pure oxygen. The fiction must take into account the laws of nature regarding whatever events it posits, or else the viewer will reject the fiction.

My paper, The Claims of Fiction, analyzes that very phenomenon. When you say to yourself at the theater “It wouldn’t really happen that way…” You accept the non-factual situation, but reject how that situation would then proceed. Space travel is much easier to accept than a cigarette not exploding in pure oxygen. Basically, fiction would make a counterfactual claim, “If space travel were possible, and a cigarette was lit in a pure oxygen environment, then it would not blow up.”And that claim is precisely what we would reject.

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2 Responses to Thank You for Smoking and claims in fiction

  1. The other one says:

    I was talking to my brother about this very thing over the break. I mentioned how it always kind of bothers me how movies and tv shows about futuristic space travel seem to ignore the laws of physics such as gravity (let alone the other complexities of space travel). How is it that, without being attached to a large body or using centripetal force, every can walk freely aboard a space ship? My brother mentioned the catch all response that it is in the future, so they’ve found alternative ways to manipulate gravity. That is usually the excuse to get us to believe.
    To build off of that, I think that fiction and fictional worlds can get around impossibilities as long as it is easily related to our own world. For example, in space there is no sound; however, most space travel media has explosions and laser noises in space, but we can believe it because our own world does have noise and that is easier to associate with than a world with no noise even if it is incorrect. Very few of us have ever been in space, so we can’t really relate to an “accurate” portrayal.

  2. Christopher Hall says:

    NIce article.
    -Chris Hall (Walnut Creek)

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