Mad Magazine is still hanging on. In April, it launched a reboot, jokingly calling it its “first issue.”
But in terms of cultural resonance and mass popularity, it’s largely lost its clout.
At its apex in the early 1970s, Mad’s circulation surpassed 2 million. As of 2017, it was 140,000.
As strange as it sounds, I believe the “usual gang of idiots” that produced Mad was performing a vital public service, teaching American adolescents that they shouldn’t believe everything they read in their textbooks or saw on TV.
Mad preached subversion and unadulterated truth-telling when so-called objective journalism remained deferential to authority. While newscasters regularly parroted questionable government claims, Mad was calling politicians liars when they lied. Long before responsible organs of public opinion like The New York Times and the CBS Evening News discovered it, Mad told its readers all about the credibility gap. The periodical’s skeptical approach to advertisers and authority figures helped raise a less credulous and more critical generation in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today’s media environment differs considerably from the era in which Mad flourished. But it could be argued that consumers are dealing with many of the same issues, from devious advertising to mendacious propaganda.
While Mad’s satiric legacy endures, the question of whether its educational ethos – – its implicit media literacy efforts – remains part of our youth culture is less clear.
A merry-go-round of media panics
In my research on media, broadcasting and advertising history, I’ve noted the cyclical nature of media panics and media reform movements throughout American history.
The pattern goes something like this: A new medium gains popularity. Chagrined politicians and outraged citizens demand new restraints, claiming that opportunists are too easily able to exploit its persuasive power and dupe consumers, rendering their critical faculties useless. But the outrage is overblown. Eventually, audience members become more savvy and educated, rendering such criticism quaint and anachronistic.
During the penny press era of the 1830s, periodicals often fabricated sensational stories like the “Great Moon Hoax” to sell more copies. For a while, it worked, until accurate reporting became more valuable to readers.
During the ‘Great Moon Hoax,’ the New York Sun claimed to have discovered a colony of creatures on the moon. (Wikimedia Commons)
When radios became more prevalent in the 1930s, Orson Welles perpetrated a similar extraterrestrial hoax with his infamous “War of the Worlds” program. This broadcast