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When Propaganda Backfires

Blonde Bombshells

(image source:

The Plan: During WWII, Axis powers attempted to wage psychological warfare against the Allies in a highly unusual way. They'd fly over enemy camps and drop pictures of buxom ladies on the troops. The twist? Most of the women were pictured in passionate embraces with strange men.

The Hope: According to German officials, the drops were meant to get GIs thinking about their wives and girlfriends back home-specifically, thinking about them being unfaithful. Axis propaganda wasn't always so convoluted, though. Sometimes the Germans simply dropped pictures of scantily clad women posed over quotes such as "You can enjoy this if you surrender."

The Disappointment: Surprise! Apparently, giving out free pictures of sexy women isn't the best way to demoralize soldiers. Far from being upset, the GIs began collecting the pics and using them as pinups.


(Image Source: Flight's Image of the Day)

The Plan: Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wanted to spread the message of communism far and wide, so in 1934, he enlisted the ANT-20, a massive aircraft with a wingspan of more than 200 feet.

The Hope: In addition to its jaw-dropping size, the plane contained multiple radio stations, a photo lab, and even a printing press for distributing leaflets midair. But the best thing about the plane (from a propaganda point of view) was its loudspeaker. Known as the "Voice from the Sky", the sound system was so powerful that it could broadcast speeches and songs to the public from hundreds of feet in the air.

The Disappointment: Unfortunately for Stalin, the plane's lifespan didn't match its wingspan. In 1935, a fighter plane crashed into the giant aircraft during a demonstration over Moscow, killing 45 people. But that didn't stop the propaganda from living on. Soviet officials quickly blamed the crash on the fighter pilot, Nikolai Blagin, and a new word, Blaginism, was introduced into the Russian language. It translates to "a cocky disregard of authority."


(Image source: Awful Library Books)

The Plan: In 1975, President Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act, and the United States embarked on a full-fledged campaign to join the rest of the world in using meters and grams.

The Hope: The federal government tried to get Americans on board by pumping tons of money into the effort. It funded metric-touring posters, pamphlets, and TV spots-including a series of animated shorts by the same team that did "Schoolhouse Rock."There was even an answering service set up to help confused citizens.

The Disappointment: It turns out that citizens weren't exactly rushing to borrow 225 grams of sugar from their neighbors or ask the grocer for 3.79 liters of milk. In 1982, President Reagan cut the campaign's funding. Instead, he supported "voluntary metrication." lettiing Americans choose whether or not they wanted to embrace the new measuring scheme. (They chose not to.)


The above article was written by Maggie Ryan Sandford. It is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the July-August 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

Why did the Metric Conversion Act fail? You didn't say and to be honest it's always something I've been curious about. Aren't there only something like 2 or 3 countries that don't use the metric system, making the American public's stance fairly unusual?
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Stoopid metric system. Deserved to fail, though it has made some incursions into popular culture: liter bottles of soda instead of a proper gallon, and 5K charity races. What is so bad about a 5 mile charity race? No one knows.

The Fahrenheit measurement is superior to the Celsius that it is a wonder that anyone bothers with the latter at all. There is true stubbornness.
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I think the metric system failed because they tried to do too much too fast. They should have focuesed on pushed for school kids to learning metric with the english system.

In time you will have a generation that will understand the differences and the advantages of the metric system. When these kids become adults they will be more able to accept implementing the metric system into their lives and work, because they feel comfortable with it.

Trying to force the metric system all at once on everyone was no more possible than trying to get everyone to speak a different language.
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As a (Canadian) user of metric, I love being able to use the same systems in my chemistry class as I do in my baking. And Celsius just makes sense. It was based on water changing states!

I do know Fahrenheit though, just because Americans refuse to learn Celsius and it makes a slight language barrier.
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Moreover, the metric system is from French origin. Anything coming from this country is too wussy to be useful for America. For example, temperature in Celsius. The numbers are way too small compared to Fahrenheit. A body temperature of 98.6 °F is manlier than 37°C.
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My husband is Canadian and has pointed out several times that Canada switched to the metric system when the US tried to, since we're their largest trading partner. Road signs, product labels, etc. Everything switched over at once, at huge expense. Canadians took to the system relatively easily. Then the US gave up on idea but Canada kept it anyway.

Also, to a much smaller degree, Canada did change languages... or to be more precise, added a second language, French, as an official language. More money spent changing product labels (US companies that want to sell products in Canada have to comply), reprinting govt. forms, etc. to include both English and French.

It's safe to say Canadians are much more adaptable and easygoing than Americans in many things. Of course, they have a smaller population and less infrastructure so the transition costs are less than what it would be in the US to do the same things. Still, most Canadians are more "go with the flow" than many Americans. American stubbornness indeed.

But I think you're right. With Americans, slowly acclimating the population, starting with children, to the metric system would have been the smarter way to go.
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The whole point of the metric system is to create a system that is both standardized across countries as well as being unambiguous and easily used for science.
To the layperson, the system of units is arbitrary; most people do not use a measuring system for anything outside of speed, distance, and cooking quantities; in these cases, the system used can be arbitrary and even imprecise (as is quite evident in the current U.S. measurement system: grains, feet, teaspoons, horsepower, etc.).
Where the U.S. system really shows its awkwardness is when one tries to do science with it -- the system is too old for modern science. There exist way too many unnecessary and arbitrarily inter-related units in the U.S. system for the same quantity; for example, inches, feet, yards, and miles.
If this awkward inter-relation is not enough, there is also the huge problem of ambiguity; consider volume as an example. In the metric system, 1 ml = 1 cm^3, regardless of the substance (mass is only related through a density constant, and water is approximately 1 g for 1 ml). Now consider volume the US customary system; considering pints, there is a wet pint (defined as 473 ml), and a dry pint (550 ml). Now, 1 liquid pint is 16 ounces, but ounces are also a unit of mass, and 1 liquid ounce does not equal 1 ounce mass (not to mention that ounces are related to pounds, and there is further ambiguity between pound force and pound mass). If this is not enough, in measuring mass there is the troy ounce and the avoirdupois ounce; so all-together there are three "ounces" currently in common use that are *not equal* (fluids, solids, and precious metals). If this isn't enough, there are even other systems out there that use the same nomenclature and are still different than all of these! This sort of sloppy garbage is *why* the SI was developed, why serious science invokes the metric system, and why I hate anything but SI and derived units.
As you can tell, I have an intense dislike of the U.S. customary system. I am Canadian and of moderate age where I have enough experience with both systems; I also have a more technical background, and as a result a vested interest in logical and standardized units.
So in closing, just because the general public is more familiar with an outdated system does not make it superior. The ambiguity of the outdated US customary system is reason enough to change; regardless of the fact that the rest of the civilized *and uncivilized* world have officially adopted the metric system.
P.S. the SI unit for temperature is kelvin (K), not degrees Celsius; note that it's *not* "degrees kelvin," as it has its origin at absolute zero. The result of this is that in addition to the fact that 310 K is manlier than 98.6°F (see post 7), any scientist will vouch that "a temperature unit with origin at absolute zero is tits."
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I was in school when metrification started and knew instantly it would be a bust.... instead of throwing a raisin in your hand and saying THIS IS A GRAM, or saying THIS STICK IS A METER, they filled everyone's heads with confusing conversion formulas.

Stop using English measures and just go metric. Say THIS is a kilogram, THIS is a kilometer, THIS is a millimeter and be done with it....
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Ironic, considering the US was one of the first countries to adopt the SI (metric) system back in the 1700s as a symbol of solidarity with the French. Americans, get your stuff together and start using a system based on science instead of hog's heads and king's arms.
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In Canada (and Britain), there are still vestiges of Imperial - dimensions (yard size, house size, most lumber) are in feet, etc. But ask a kid what a mile is, or Fahrenheit degree is, and they give you a blank stare. It will take generations to fully switch. In the US, isn't most manufacturing (what's left) in Metric? I'm thinking of car fasteners, for example.
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I think the reason that we did not accept the conversion is that the SI system is neither superior nor that much easier. I have used both for 40 years as a student, scientist, engineer and inventor. While converting inches to miles is more difficult than centimeters to kilometers, Here are a few constants that are equally difficult in both systems:

Force of Gravity 9.81 m/s2 = 32.2 ft/s2

Air Pressure 760 Torr = 29.92 inHg = 14.696 PSI = 1013.25 millibars

and the classic: pi = 3.145... in both systems.
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And the obvious answer is that the US is just too big a market to be ignored, so we get the luxury of being recalcitrant.

We're getting there. Liters are close enough to quarts that we use them interchangeably. Millimeters are tiny enough that who the hell cares what they're called?

There's also some inherent deficiencies with Metric units. E.g., Celsius degrees are farther apart than Fahrenheit degrees, which makes it less useful.
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It irks me to no end that there are 12 inches in a foot, 16 ounces in a pound, 5,280 feet in a mile, etc.I also work with tools, and prefer metric. It makes working quicker. And these days many things have BOTH metric and standard nuts and bolts. Totally frustrating.why use both? It's stupid.Also, when you eye up a bolt, figure it is about 14mm, and it turns out to be bigger, you can pretty much tell if you need a 15mm or 16mm wrench. With standard wrenches, it could be 7/16", 9/16", 1/2",etc. Annoying, to say the least.
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The thing that's nice about Imperial is its cultural roots. History is inherent in every measure unlike metric whose derivation is predicated almost exclusively by the abstract power of 10. One is rich in context. The other is rich in logic. There's room enough in this world for both, or at least, there should be.

In our Age of Disposable Living, we tend to discard context in our impatience for newness and the superficiality of "new and improved". Like languages, there's always more to be gained from assimilation and co-existence, than arbitrary displacement.
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I also like the added math skills required with Imperial. Multiplying and factoring by more than the power of 10, in and of itself, means not letting my math skills deteriorate over time for the sake of convenience.

Each system also "speaks" differently about different things. When I drive, I drive in metric because cars and most roads talk metric. When I measure, I measure in imperial because my body talks in imperial - i.e. my thumb is an inch, my hand span is 8 inches, my foot is a foot, and my gait is a yard.

Fahrenheit also allows us to speak in "ranges" - i.e. "in the 10s, 20s, 30s, and so on, through to the 90s, and into the 100s", something that doesn't really resonate as well in Celsius.
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I know the answer to this one! I was a kid, my dad worked for the government. The part about stupidly trying to teach people the conversion formulas rather than just switching was a factor.

The real problem was that American manufacturers refused to switch as it would have meant retooling and upgrading factories to use metric parts. When their supporters in the Republican party won, the metric conversion project was ended. Of course, within a decade, they regretted it, because increasing globalization meant that American manufacturers became cut off from global markets due to interoperability factors, forcing them to often have to have doubled production lines to make both domestic and export versions. And the mass exporting of jobs and manufacturing from the US happened not only because of more expensive workers, but because American companies did not keep up with the latest manufacturing technologies. If there had been a massive amount of factory upgrades in the late 70s and early 80s, the US would probably not be as bad off as we are now. (Jobs wise.)

The people who pushed for the metric system in the US knew where the world was headed. Too bad people thought that ignoring the future was a good thing to do.
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