Dinosaurs

By Gozzi, Raymond, Jr. | et Cetera, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Dinosaurs


Gozzi, Raymond, Jr., et Cetera


WE ARE TOLD that dinosaurs are extinct. However, they are alive and well in our popular culture. Mainstream scientists also get a lot of mileage out of dinosaurs. And now dinosaurs have a new career as a popular metaphor.

I started noticing dinosaur metaphors back in the early and mid-1990s, particularly in the technology field. With everything changing so fast, could the dinosaurs of "old media" adapt? Or would the telephone companies, the TV networks, and the cable companies become extinct?

Dinosaur metaphors really took off in 1993 with the release of the film Jurassic Park. The movie's PR campaign impressed me - suddenly it seemed "dinosaurs" were everywhere. And not just any dinosaurs appeared on cups at fast food restaurants, it was the big, menacing Tyrannosaurus Rexes which starred in the movie. Even schoolchildren were studying special units on T. Rex.

In reality, 70 million years ago most dinosaurs were quite peaceful. Scientists classify many as vegetarians. But these grass-chewing giants from the past got almost no play in the 1990s hype. From the modern imagery, you would think that the Upper Cretaceous period resembled a combat computer game, with giant T. Rexes battling it out until no one was left standing. Perhaps these images of dinosaurs tell us more about our media culture than about the dinosaurs.

Not only violent dinosaurs, but a violent cataclysmic end to the dinosaurs received a lot of media attention. A meteor (or an asteroid) was widely conjectured to have hit the earth, causing a "great dying." The sudden, explosive end to the dinosaurs made dramatic visuals on magazine covers. However, many scientists rejected the scenario of a sudden "great dying" caused by an asteroid. Instead, the fossil record seemed to show a gradual dying off of dinosaur species over a long period of time. But such gradualism would make for less sensational media.

It is true there was at least one peaceful dinosaur in popular culture in the 1990s - Barney, the purple dinosaur on children's TV. In fact, Barney acted so peacefully that he put many parents to sleep. But even Barney had his media scandal in the 1990s.

A Floridian named John Bunch, Jr., pretended to be a born-again person named Luscious M. Bromley who claimed Barney was sending satanic messages to kids. The story got picked up by the press, and made the national media before it was exposed as a hoax. Like many other media-generated scandals of the 1990s, this one had no substance. But the Barney hoax rode on the coattails of media interest in dinosaurs.

I did a computer search of the Lexis-Nexis database of newspapers for the term "dinosaur." I looked at January and February through the 1990s (plus June, 1993, the month of Jurassic Park's release). Before the release of Jurassic Park in June, 1993, dinosaurs were a mildly popular item in the nation's press. For example, in January and February, 1990, the term appeared 147 times. Most of the stories dealt with real dinosaurs - fossil finds and museum exhibits. Some stories described the "great dying" debate, "Yes, the asteroid killed them," and "No, the asteroid didn't kill them." There were some metaphorical uses. Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was called a dinosaur, and the term came up discussing Pentagon budgets. And there were dinosaurs in the media: a 1992 TV series called "Attack of the Dinosaurs" received some attention.

But in 1993, the Jurassic Park PR campaign swung into gear. January and February 1993 saw 293 dinosaur mentions, double the 147 of two years earlier. This was partly fueled by the Barney scandal. But an article on children's toys noted:

Dinosaurs: This is always a staple item, but the anticipated June release of Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" already has the licensing agents in a full-- court press. Nearly everyone is showing some kind of dino-inspired product, including plush toys, board games, action figures, and dinosaur miniatures. …

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