Projects and observations

Propaganda: “Ads Make Us…”

One of the first public ad campaigns I ever conceived of was a series of “Ads Make Us…” posters designed for transit advertising. Advertising was my introduction to the study of human decision making, and, indeed, marketing experts have probably conducted more research into short-term decision making than any other group. Marketers have also developed ways to directly apply their findings to ad creation, essentially engineering ads to resonate with us and influence our purchasing decisions. In a society where our role as a consumer is paramount to all others, this influence is extremely lucrative – that is, powerful.

Most ads are not designed simply to inform us about products and services we may wish to purchase. They are designed to make an emotional impact, not just informing us that a thing exists, but also making us feel as if we need the product in some way. While the tricks used for this vary substantially – from classic “sex sells” to pervasive “peer pressure” techniques – a large many of them depend on instilling negative emotions in us. While some ads certainly take a more positive direction, even those are generally selling a fantasy, not a product, and often instill negative emotions in their own way.

Ads often make us feel that, because we don’t have this thing being advertised, we are missing out on something essential, we are less than our peers, we are less than or defective or weird. But these ads make it clear to us that those terrible feelings (that we all have from time to time) will go away if we just spend some money! First, they dig up these feelings, intensifying those we have and instilling new reasons to feel bad about ourselves, and then they provide a convenient answer to the problem. Of course, the answer is never as good or complete or effective as pitched and, as the saying goes, money can’t buy happiness.

That does not stop us from trying.

Even “positive” ads often invoke these same tactics. Instead of overtly showing us how awful our existence is without their widget, positive ads generally show how much better everything could be with one. Of course, only the framing is really different because just as overtly negative ads, you are still left feeling like you have a dark, widget-shaped hole in your life.

Unfortunately, many people believe that ads don’t really affect them. They believe they are too smart or pay too much attention for advertising to make any difference in their behavior. Of course, these people are wrong. Even with lots of study and developing a persistent awareness of (some of) the advertising that reaches me, I know that it affects me. I think that believing otherwise is dangerous.

As a hypothetical way of combating this, I devised a series of public advertisements that point out specific aspects of advertising that effect most of us to some extent. The call to action on these has evolved over time, and currently I choose to feature the line “Limit ads, regain freedom.” This is intended to be a bit provocative, but an essential part of this campaign is based on the idea that we can use the same techniques employed by mass marketers to change public sentiment. This is unproven, but I hope to help make a case for it over time.

Note too that this call to action implicitly requires limits on at least one form of speech: commercial advertising. My thoughts on this are ever-evolving, but I think that to have a functional society, we must curb the level and type of advertising around us. In the US, it is a common fallacy that we do not control speech. In fact, we do limit a great deal of speech: libel; slander; lying to specific classes of individual (the IRS and police); hate speech and more. What is common among the speech we limit is that it is harmful. The speech itself causes harm to the public or to individuals. So, in truth, the US limits harmful speech. Because I believe that commercial advertising is very harmful on both a societal and personal level, I believe that not only can it be regulated, but that it should be. (Please look for additional work on this subject as I don’t want to hijack my own post with this!)

I have created mock-ups of these ads many times now, with previous generations being lost to time (and giant, un-indexed digital storage devices) so I present below a selection of my top favorites, recently recreated. Some day, I hope to have reason to employ a graphic designer to help make these pop!


DIY: A “non-rigid” sign pole for protests & marches.

Many police departments across the US have banned “rigid poles” at public gatherings such as protests, demonstrations and marches. The result of this has been dramatic. The photos of these mass gatherings of people, when compared to those from previous eras, seem flat to me, with fewer signs and fewer faces visible. I think it’s important to have these dynamic images of events because we depend so much on media coverage (both journalistic and interpersonal) to spread the messages that inspire these actions.

Currently, many places disallow plastic, wood, and metal as sign poles. However, cardboard is usually acceptable at most events. The common wisdom seems to be to seek out a wrapping paper core and to use that for mounting signs. While a simple solution, it is not really a good one. Mounting signs to curved surfaces is not ideal; buying wrapping paper to use only the core is wasteful and expensive; most paper cores are thin and flimsy and will loose integrity after a couple of dents. Instead, I conceived of a simple way to repurpose normal cardboard boxes into sturdy, practically-free sign poles which are easy to mount to and even collapse into short segments for travel.

In a nutshell, this guide will take you through measuring, scoring, cutting and folding multiple triangular tubes from cardboard. You’ll make two or three outer pole sections (depending on the length you want and cardboard available) and one or two smaller and shorter coupler sections that will snugly fit inside the outer sections.

Below, you’ll find a template which will help take some of the fiddly work out of construction. In addition, you’ll need some supplies:

  • Cardboard – 18-24” wide, and at least 15” long*
  • Straight-edge – Longer is generally better, though a standard ruler will work
  • Pencil/pen for marking
  • Hobby knife, box knife or similar
  • Dull butter knife, letter opener, or similar for scoring fold lines
  • Glue for paper – White PVA glue like Elmer’s is fine. I like Tacky Glue myself.
  • Rubber bands or tape (to secure while drying)

* This does not have to be a single piece 15” long – as long as you have 5” of usable cardboard, you can use multiple pieces for this! Couplers can be made from pieces as small as 8”x5”. Additionally, the “grain” of the cardboard (the direction the ribbing runs in) should be along the longest dimension.

Get the template here!

(Following are text-based instructions that go into more detail than the instructions included with the template. However, the template includes pretty pictures, so I highly suggest starting there!)

What we are making:

Two main pole sections assembled with a single coupler

First up, prepare the template:

Fold template as indicated

  1. Print the template and, optionally, the instructions. Print at 100% without scaling – this is very important!
  2. Fold the template in half where indicated. Since paper feeds and printer margins vary, this gives the template a known starting point for measurements. Try to get this fold pretty accurate.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the template: One side is for making the outer, main pole sections and has identical measurement lines on both ends. The other side is for making a coupler. The measurements for the coupler are different on each edge. Which edge you use depends on whether your cardboard is thin (1/8”) or thick (more than 1/8” but less than 1/4”). Be sure you use only the measurements on one end for making your couplers. Draw a big “X” through the end you aren’t using if you think you might confuse the two.

Next, mark off the cardboard:

Align the bottom of the folded template with the bottom of the cardboard.

  1. Align the folded edge of the template, main side up, with the bottom of the wide side of the cardboard.
  2. Mark each of the score and cut lines on either side of the template at several locations down the length of the cardboard. Be sure the marks are closer together than the length of your straight edge.
  3. Using your straight edge, connect the measurement lines so that you have 4 continuous lines down the length of the cardboard – three score lines and one cut line.

Then, Cut and fold the pole:

Score and cut as indicated.

  1. Using the straight edge and dull butter knife (or other scoring device), score along the three score lines. You want to dent into the cardboard, but not cut it. Try to keep the score from cutting through into the cardboard.
  2. Using the straight edge and sharp knife, cut the cardboard on the cut line.
  3. Fold the cardboard along all three score lines, toward the line. It can be very useful to bend these over the edge of a table or counter. The short flap can be challenging to fold, but try to keep the fold as straight as you can

Now, glue it up:

Fold all main sections and couplers with the short flap inside.

  1. Fold the pole into its final triangular tube shape, with the short flap inside the tube. Adjust any of the folds if you need to get it to make a nice, solid tube.
  2. Lightly unfold the tube, and apply a bead of glue down the short flap where it contacts the inside of the tube.
  3. Re-fold into the final shape and secure the tube with several rubber bands or tape. If using tape, consider its placement carefully as slick, plastic tape can be hard to keep hold of when you are marching down the street!

Repeat to make another outer tube and, using the other side of the template, a coupler. If you are using shorter cardboard and want a longer pole, you can make three outer tubes and two couplers. Be sure to make all couplers 8-12″ long to provide a solid fit.

Finally, fit it together:

Rotating the coupler can provide a good, snug fit.

  1. Once the glue is fully dry, push the coupler about a third of the way into the end of an outer pole. You may need to experiment with the rotation of the coupler and which end you insert first. This should be nice and snug, but no so tight that it pops the glue seams.
  2. Add another outer pole over the other end of the coupler.
  3. Once both outer tubes are partially inserted, carefully push them together until the coupler is fully engulfed in the outer tubes. Repeat with the additional coupler and tube if using.
  4. You can pull the tubes apart to collapse the pole for easier traveling.
  5. If the couplers start or become loose, you can wrap some tape around them to increase their size slightly. Masking and paper tape works great for this, but plastic and duct tapes can cause problems.

You can now mount signs to one of the flat surfaces of the pole with tape, glue or staples or save this step till you get to your event. With some extra engineering, you can also create a cross-bar that can be zip-tied across the top to mount non-rigid signs more easily. Just make an additional main section that’s the width of your sign, cut a receiving groove into the top of the main pole, and make some holes for the zip ties. If you’ll use this often, reinforce the holes with plastic tubing or similar.

This is a super-cheap, easy and effective way to bring back some of the dynamic and impressive stature seen in mass protests of the past. It’s obvious that the visual presentation of these actions is important to how they are covered and shared.

Please feel free to share this template and concept! I can’t wait to see more signs at protests, demonstrations and marches soon.


Please note that even though this pole is made completely of cardboard, which is explicitly allowed by police departments (Boston, for instance) there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to carry this at any particular event. For instance, when I attended the march protesting the “free speech rally” held in Boston just after Charlottesville, the event organizers declined to allow me to carry one of these. The police officers on site did not have an opinion, but the organizers wished to avoid any appearance whatsoever of weapons being present in the crowd. Luckily, since these are essentially free, it was easy for me to discard most of the pole and carry on with a shortened version on my sign.

The Lifecycle of Precious Ideas

Early in my life, learned to mostly reject the concept that ideas are special, rare and valuable. Once I started keeping an idea notebook to which I regularly added, it dawned on me that I had far too many ideas to ever act upon them all. As you can read in hundreds of other posts, it’s not the idea so much as the execution that counts.

However, there is still one type of idea that sometimes becomes precious – that is, so valuable that I am protective of it. What becomes precious to me is an idea that I’m really excited about, one that I think could help people and really make a difference, but that seems too big or complex for me to execute on immediately. Maybe it’s an idea for a book in a field I am only lightly versed in. Or maybe it’s an idea for an entire online platform that may require months of coding (something I tend to avoid in my personal projects these days).

In other words, what becomes precious to me are ideas I want to execute, but feel like I can’t.

So, I save them. I take notes about them, sometimes promoting them to their own virtual notebook in my preferred app. I think about them and imagine what it would be like to have completed them. But over time, most of these ideas begin to decay and lose their luster, their dry bones becoming heavy and burdensome. And then it will begin to disgust me, and taunt me with the promise I once saw but made no progress towards realizing. So I’ll kill it. Maybe that’s just archiving off the notes somewhere I’ll never look, or maybe deleting it altogether and vowing not to think of it again.

And this is the lifecycle of a precious idea.

I think this is a terrible way to treat something that had once seemed so promising and interesting to me. To be sure, there are times that ideas don’t pan out and should be killed, or changed, or integrated into others. But most often for me, it’s not the idea itself that causes it to wither, but the fear of executing it.

I don’t have the skills!

I don’t have the reputation!

I don’t have the time!

It’s gonna be so much work!

Whining reasons that ultimately kill my best ideas.

I continue to search for the right balance. I know from listening to many creative people that sometimes ideas do need to wait, and almost all ideas can benefit from a little time simmering on the back burner. But surely there must be a way to better manage my ideas so that fewer die under my self-doubt and procrastination.

As I continue to produce more work in public, it makes me understand that some of these precious ideas do have a place – they can be my private projects. I always like working on more than one thing, so my plan for the next year is to always be actively working on one of these precious ideas alongside all the smaller, quicker things I execute.

My theory is that if I make progress on a specific precious idea (that’s more than just adding some notes here and there!) then these bigger projects may continue to be important to me and, instead of withering and disappearing, they can have life and I can have a chance to make impact through them.

I have a book I’ve been lightly working on for a few months, but it’s been some time since I’ve made anything like progress on it. It requires a lot of research – much more than I’ve ever done for a project in the past — and I must not let that deter me.

This is the precious idea I will nurture over the next year. This is the one that will survive and, I hope, thrive.

Political Stickers – “Tax the Rich” and “$ ≠ 💬” (Money is Not Speech)

I’m not content to only theorize on the public messaging that I want to bring to the world. As is obvious by my Falsum Resist Guide and well-selling sticker and button designs, I have a need to make real, physical manifestations of my ideas. So, a few months ago I had some stickers made with simple but powerful slogans.

Strips of bulk stickers including two designs. One, square with white text on black reads "TAX THE RICH" The second, rectangular, reads "$ ≠ 💬"

First up, is a design that is an extension of my recently blogged Tax the Rich ad campaign for public awareness. These are simple 1.5×1.5″ stickers which are cheap and easy to apply to most anything. I have gifted hundreds of these to people across the country and have encountered many on signs and poles in my own neighborhoods. (Luckily, all of them have been responsibly placed so far!)

A sticker displaying "TAX THE RICH" on a lamp post along with other stickers.

The second sticker I recently created is intended to be an interesting way to proclaim that Money is Not Speech. Since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the influx of money into politics has only gotten worse. I do not believe that money is speech. In fact, I believe that commercial speech is harmful speech – the only kind that we routinely limit in this country. These stickers make the point with a simple three-character “sentence” including a fully custom speech bubble as I was not happy with any existing emoji or dingbats. I have also given away hundreds of these and they have received extremely positive feedback. I hope that this or similar shorthand will begin to appear in the messaging of the many groups dedicated to undoing the damage that the Citizens United ruling has had.

Sticker displaying "$ ≠ 💬" on the back of a sign among other stickers.
Sticker displaying "$ ≠ 💬" on the back of a sign among other stickers.
Sticker displaying "$ ≠ 💬" on the back of a sign among other stickers.

Propaganda: TAX THE RICH

When I first conceived of the precursor to Citizen Supported Propaganda, I started to mock up various advertisements that I might like to see be part of public messaging campaigns. One that I think is particularly needed right now is featured here.

We have a strong narrative in this country that our economic woes are due to immigrants and “moochers” who, so the story goes, take more than their fair share of public funding. Many factions in this country have villainized these groups and accused them of being responsible for the accuser’s own poor economic position. Of course we know that no data actually backs up these claims. In fact, the groups that have siphoned off the largest amounts of public funds and who have exploited the economy are those who are already unusually wealthy. Anyone who has looked at the increasing wealth inequality in America will have a difficult time arguing otherwise.

However, we worship and laud these incredibly rich individuals and families. We idolize them and see them as role models. Whether it’s reality or scripted TV, megastar performers, or classic “old money” aristocrats, we seem to be crazy over rich people and, perhaps more accurately, the lifestyles they lead. I think we need to begin to change this public sentiment. We need to look at extreme levels of wealth as a sign of selfishness, not success. We need to accept that, while we may be a bit envious of their position, ultimately it is this group who is taking more than their fair share and this group that must be brought to heel.

In this vein, I designed an initial batch of public messaging ads which stress elements about the lifestyles and actions of rich people in an attempt to break the admiration and replace it with revulsion. If we no longer look at rich people as our heroes, maybe we can engineer effective ways to limit their negative impact on the economy and society as a whole.


Photo of a fancy Mercedes car with the text "This is not success, this is selfishness. Tax the rich"

Let’s change the narrative around expensive things.

White text on a black background reading "RICH PEOPLE buy influence and destroy democracy. Tax the rich."

Remind people what they already know.

White text on a black background reading "RICH PEOPLE keep us all down. Tax the rich."

Relate it to all of us – we are in this together

A photo of Warren Buffet with the text "While you ride this train two stops, this man makes over a million dollars doing absolutely nothing. That's what 20 average American families make in an entire year. That's 80,000 hours of hard work. Tax the rich."

Point out just how unequal we are, and how absurd it is to claim rich people “earn” their levels of increased wealth.

White text on a black background reading "RICH PEOPLE will take it all if given the chance. Tax the rich."

Remind people that it won’t get better without action.

Photo of a fancy yacht with the text "Yacht for rent. Just 1.2 Million Dollars Per Week. That's the annual income of 23 American Families. So a rich person can ride in a boat. TAX THE RICH."

Point out just how absurd the luxury market for ultra-rich people is.

Public spaces for the public: Taking a break from the ads

When I first conceptualized Citizen Supported Propaganda, it was after years of thinking about the concept in less over-arching, more project-oriented terms. I have often envisioned a project whereby members of the public (made easier today by croudfunding infrastructure) collectively buy out the advertising in public and quasi-public spaces and, for some length of time, replace it with content that makes simply existing in these spaces more enjoyable while simultaneously calling attention to the lack of advertising present.

As a pie-in-the-sky project, I have imagined taking over an entire concourse at a busy airport. Through the years, the project has variously included displaying classic art with no textual mention of the lack of ads, to the idea of having every single ad surface plastered with “This is not an ad” and similar messages. While I think that the most effective message is neither of those extremes, this thought of removing advertisement from a space where many people spend substantial time is something I can’t shake.

Other venues provide a much more accessible laboratory for this kind of intercession. In Boston, for instance, I know that public transit advertising packages start at about $8,000. This is a number that is reasonable to raise from a small group. I question often, however, whether the distributed campaign that eight grand brings could be made as effective as, say, a single subway car take-over. Is it better to reach more people with a simple message among many (distributed campaign) or to provide fewer passengers (a take-over) a much more intense experience? My gut feeling says the latter is true, but I have not yet researched this enough to know for sure where the biggest bang-for-the-buck is likely to lie.

I hope to get the chance to research this more fully, by both looking at what others have found in the past as well as conducting experiments myself. In particular, I want to know what the lasting effects of these different modes of presenting public messages might be. A year later, say, are people more likely to be influenced by one or another? Are more people influenced in one scenario over the other? Can any of this lead to lasting mind change?

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