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!

 

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