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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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