Ronda Rousey, the UFC fighter, told Fortune magazine that she is obsessed with Ancient Aliens, adding her name to the long list of celebrities who count themselves acolytes of the ancient astronaut theory. “I love ‘Ancient Aliens.’ Sometimes at the end of the day I just need to sit down and learn about some aliens. For some reason it makes me feel good, and I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, but I love me some aliens.” I’m not sure whether it’s scarier that she thinks she’s “learning” about aliens, or that she can’t even explain why it makes her feel good.
Meanwhile, I found fascinating a glimpse behind the scenes of the old Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown book series, a series of mail-order books whose commercials were a television mainstay from 1987 to 1991. Atlas Obscura tells the story of the influential series, and it’s depressing to learn exactly how cynical the Time-Life team was in launching the series.
I can remember the old commercials for those Time-Life books, with their oversized black covers and silver embossed titles on subjects ranging from sea monsters to UFOs. I seem to remember that my high school library had a set of them, though I can’t be entirely sure I am remembering correctly. I know I saw them somewhere. I never owned that series myself, but about a decade ago I did acquire a big chunk of its companion series for $10 in my local library’s book sell-off. Time-Life, at the end of the run, used the Mysteries of the Unknown brand to reprint copies of occult books like Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, The Interrupted Journey, etc. in the same handsome black covers with silvered titles and page ends.
Anyway, Atlas Obscura’s Eric Grundhauser spoke with Tom Corry, the onetime product manager for Time-Life Books. He told Grundhauser that Time-Life had already had a successful line of 21 books on mythology called Enchanted World, advertised by Vincent Price among others. Time-Life wanted a new series that would capture the same market for the occult but would be differentiated from the more clearly fictional legends and folklore. In order to determine the content of the series, Corry and his team ran the numbers, using business reply mail cards to calculate the topics that readers were most interested in. The result was monsters, psychics, and aliens. “We thought we could probably squeeze a series out of this,” Corry said. The new series, Mysteries of the Unknown, ran 33 volumes.
Corry, however, said that the staff hated the idea, and they were opposed to producing “fringe” content so far afield from their usually sober and serious books on nature and science. Nevertheless, customer interest and sales projections overrode editorial concerns, and an influential series on fringe topics was born. The staff refused to play along entirely, though, and insisted on writing the series with the same standards of quality as their other books, including sources and references, and skeptical opinions.
But that wasn’t how the advertising played. “Maybe no one can explain these things but they can no longer be ignored,” one commercial stated. “How can you explain this?” The series broke direct-mail sales records, with more than 700,000 orders for the first book in the series in its first few months on offer, aided by advertisements that wouldn’t seem out of place on Ancient Aliens:
Man 1: Mystic Places?
The ads, which often contrasted believers with dour skeptics, read almost like a dry run for the X-Files, which premiered in 1993. (There is speculation online that the books influenced X-Files creator Chris Carter, but I’m not aware that he ever confirmed this.) Sales of the series gradually tapered off—how many people, after all, would want 33 volumes of anything?—and the series was discontinued in 1991.
It of course shouldn’t surprise anyone that a major corporation would use marketing data to determine what content to produce. What’s depressing, though, is that the marketers intentionally played up claims that the editorial staff told them were untrue in order to make a cash grab. The only saving grace here is that that editorial staff, then still upholding the old, higher standards of Time and Life, weren’t willing to go full-fringe. It’s hard to imagine that occurring today.
9/29/2015 12:31:29 pm
There's this as well, headed by mystagogue Lynn Picknett
9/29/2015 05:39:27 pm
I used to own a Time Life series on the history of flight, or at least part of it. Apparently it ran to 23 volumes and I think I had about twelve. Good memories.
9/29/2015 08:39:00 pm
It's depressing that making money is more important today than truth. Publishers have aided the decay of society in pursuit of sales. Promotion of fringe is why a Frank Joseph book is shelved with academic volumes in my local library's ancient civilizations non-fiction section.
9/30/2015 01:10:34 am
"It's depressing that making money is more important today than truth."
9/30/2015 01:27:40 am
Can I ask you a question. Did you or did you not get paid to appear with Scott Wolter on America Unearthed? The amount of money Jason Colavito received from his readers was probably not even a tenth of what Scott Wolter was paid by the "History Channel" to spread his, and your, half baked fringe theory.
9/30/2015 03:36:40 am
Multiple logical non-sequiturs in Steve StC's comment.
An Over-Educated Grunt, PE
9/30/2015 10:51:04 am
The troll Krampus
9/30/2015 12:06:01 pm
Steve StC, you are one of those people that when you are pointed out as being the lying, cheating, coward you revert to what you have done here. Because when one or more people really sheds light on your dis-honesty you can only point, insult and slander those honest people hoping that somehow they will back off and your veil of "a good Shepherd" is restored. You are one of the most pathetic people on the face of the Earth because of who you are and what you thrive on: A person who profits off the ignorance and suffering of others for the sake of satisfying yourself.
9/30/2015 01:10:07 pm
Steve St. Clair! How's it going Locator Boy? Jason's most recent post must have hurt your feelings as a "marketing professional". I've been curious why you started using an abbreviated version of your name, Steve St. Clair, when you post here. Then I read your "article" on ionLeap about the amazing power of Google searches. Finally, something we agree on. I'm guessing you don't use your full name (Steve St. Clair) here because there are some things about Steve St. Clair that you prefer your marketing clients not discover. For example, it would not be good for them to realize that Steve St. Claire is a nasty, immature internet troll. Or that Steve St. Clair helped Scott Wolter promote a fraudulent machine (Long Range Locator) while Steve St. Clair was a guest on a fringe TV show. I imagine you don't want them to question Steve St. Clair's intelligence or stability, and I'm sure you don't want them to read that Steve St. Clair is jealous of another blogger because Jason Colavito is successful and Steve St. Clair only has 136 people in his circle. Gee, they might conclude that Steve St. Clair isn't exactly God's gift to marketing. They might conclude all sorts of...things.
9/30/2015 03:50:01 pm
Hmmm. My response was to the article Jason published regarding the behind the scenes decision making at Time/Life.
9/30/2015 04:43:35 pm
@ An Over-Educated Grunt
An Over-Educated Grunt, PE
9/30/2015 05:16:50 pm
@ Only Me
9/30/2015 05:44:35 pm
@ An Over-Educated Grunt
2/13/2016 10:44:31 pm
What I "get" OnlyMe is that you and the others here who post your hate anonymously on Colavito's pseudo-academic blog do so under some delusion that you too are sort-of-academics.
9/29/2015 09:53:57 pm
In Ronda Rousey's defense, she is paid to get punched in the head.
9/30/2015 01:41:01 am
Unfortunately, averaging just over 2 minutes of cage time per fight (the majority ending in under a minute) on her undefeated record, she's less able to make that defence than most.
9/30/2015 01:54:49 pm
In defense of Clint's statement: When was the last time you heard an intellectual statement come out of the mouth of anybody who's paid to get into a cage and beat on another human being while that human being is being paid to beat on them as well?
9/30/2015 03:19:47 pm
The Double Complete Rainbow guy is pretty erudite. =P
9/30/2015 03:33:17 am
'It's depressing that making money is more important today than truth.'
9/30/2015 03:55:44 pm
I know, Dave, but it seems so much easier and acceptable today to publish fringe stuff. I know there was a golden era of publishing, but I can hope :) Also, I find it easier to excuse the flights of fancy in the past because the pool of knowledge was much smaller and less easy to access.
9/30/2015 03:59:07 pm
**Edit** I meant to type "was never"
9/30/2015 07:40:06 pm
Ronda Rousey's enthusiasm for Ancient Aliens is actually tame. It appears celebrities will believe *anything*:
10/14/2015 07:43:59 pm
A friend and I were just talking about those 'read the book' commercials, and after a few minutes on eBay I ordered 7 books for a low price. 'Spirit Summonings', a look at the medium movement of the 1800's is a well done, if somewhat basic, overview.
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