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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?


ISP Customer Data a Well-Stocked Pond for Police Fishing Expeditions

A small spotted yellow fish being held by two hands in front of a ruler with stones and moss in the background. The fish measures about 9 inches long.
As most of us know by now, Republicans in congress recently made it legal for internet service providers (ISPs) to distribute and sell information about us, their customers – including detailed internet usage data – without our permission. Much has been written about the potential dystopian marketing uses of this data, but I have seen little addressing something that could be even more chilling: the use of this data by law enforcement. 

There is a recent but deep history of companies providing new data-driven tools to law enforcement. It can be hard to argue with these services on the surface, but repeatedly we have seen abuses which have led some companies to curtail the use of their services by the police. Companies have harvested the public timeline of Twitter, for instance, to provide tools for tracking lawful protestors. Facebook data is available through third parties that allow a level of deep search impossible on the platform itself. And while these services and the use of this data by law enforcement does occasionally result in a feel-good story on the news, the broadening of the use of these tools is concerning. 

Thinking specifically about ISP customer data, we know that there will be data of interest to law enforcement. It is, after all, not uncommon for subpoenas and warrants to be issued for this data in certain types of cases. The idea that detailed demographic data coupled with explicit internet usage history could soon be available on every internet subscriber in the country, packaged into a neat, searchable database, must have some members of the authorities salivating. No longer will a case need to be made first, possibly to be backed up with a handful of potentially dubious web searches. Instead, algorithms can easily digest the data as a whole and spit out a list of people who “fit the pattern” of past offenders – maybe this is a list of users visiting known child pornography sites, or maybe it’s a list of us who regularly use encrypted communications, read hardware hacking tutorials, and search for “download Avengers movie” to see which service offers it cheapest. 

We have already seen how problematic algorithmic analysis of data sets can be. They are biased, opaque, and lack nuance in their conclusions. Set loose on such a rich data set, it’s not hard to imagine the long list of potential “criminals” that can be manufactured from completely innocent, legal uses of a service they pay for. No warrant will be needed for this data. No oversight required for its use. The data brokers need not even be publicly revealed if their terms of service are properly written. And as laws regarding what is and is not legal or suspicious change, some of this data could damn us well into the future. 

Congress has not just handed the marketers of the country with a gift, they have stocked the pond for some very rich fishing expeditions by law enforcement groups throughout the US.


Community Supported Propaganda

I’ve been thinking about things that we as small groups and individuals can do to temper and eventually turn the frightening political front that the US (and, indeed, others) are seeing at this moment. We know that media plays an outsized role, even compared to the recent past, in the general thoughts and feelings of much of the country and the world. Media companies are corporations, first and foremost (some exceptions exist) and are interested primarily in a continued, profitable existence. With the extreme changes in the media landscape over the last two decades, this is not a certainty for most media corporations and, therefore, they have become much more risk-averse than in the past. This can translate into business strategies much more focused on attracting and maintaining audiences than in reporting fair and accurate news. You can’t be the only outlet not reporting on the scandal of the day lest you loose eyeballs and, therefore, revenue.

However, media – primarily video content – is not about to lose its influence in our daily lives. What I think that we as concerned individuals must do is device new ways to have media work for us, and to spread the messages we feel are important rather than leaving that choice up to profit-motivated newsrooms.

You have likely heard of a “CSA” before – usually meaning “Community Supported Agriculture” but expanded to include “Aquaculture,” and, particularly relevant to this concept, “Art.” In my community, I can participate in a Community Supported Art group which allows about 150-200 people each quarter to pay into a pool which is then distributed among a juried group of local artists, each of whom must create an art object for each of the supporters. I think we can look to this model for inspiration in getting small, targeted bits of media in front of the people who most need to hear our messages.

This is, on the surface, a simple concept:

  • Social media ads are pretty cheap (or at least have a low barrier to entry)
  • Targeting tools on those platforms are creepily specific
  • We have so many creative people who want to do something to help
  • We can crowdfund the running of ad spots targeting those who most need to hear our messages

I envision a group who evaluates submissions from the community on a variety of criteria and then manages the running of the submissions in appropriate targeted groups on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and more. Supporters pay into the pool on a regular basis (similar to Patreon) and receive updates about which ads were run and potentially engagement reports from interactions with those ads. I would hope that such situations were able to provide some compensation and/or production assistance to those creating the media content as necessary and possible.

In short, we as regular individuals could come together to put small-creator-made ads in front of hundreds of thousands of people who need to hear from anyone outside their echo chamber. We would, in effect, open up those chambers and inject our own little bit of reverb into the echoes.

There are some potential pitfalls. Any tool can be used for good and evil, and there is great potential for harmful mis-use of this concept. In fact, I would be surprised if this isn’t already happening. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, a group running ads targeting LGBT+ youth with messages encouraging self-harm, or one offering assistance to undocumented immigrants which actually handed over their information to authorities. But, while tempting, it doesn’t help to try to keep tactics secret. When used openly, everyone can better understand how they work and can use them, and devise antidotes to them, more effectively.

For my case, I would want to see ads that humanize those who are under the heaviest persecution at the moment and make it difficult for far-right conservatives to other them. I would support messages of unity and warmth, but also a lot of messages of facts –  the kinds of facts that make strong conservatives question the stories we are getting from our current administration. (Honest, creative presentation of those facts are key to encourage the necessary engagement.)

I would not personally support groups running aggressive messaging that is more likely to cause a backlash effect than a critical evaluation of beliefs. But that is a choice, not a requirement for such a thing. It makes me wonder whether contributors should have a say in which ads are run and whether voting on a juried selection may be feasible.

The media is a weapon at this point, and I see no way to stuff it back in the bottle, so let’s at least make things as even as we can.

 


Speaking up: Corporate edition

I am really impressed and proud of Lyft this morning. A private company, one that has potentially much to lose under a Trump administration, has sent and email to (all?) customers denouncing the ethically bankrupt actions of Trump with his recent immediate ban on refugees. It’s a deplorable move, and one that embarrasses me as an American. I really think we need many, many more companies to start stepping up and denouncing these actions. After all, corporations are people too, and it seems the only ones the administration will listen to. (The email came with announcement of a generous donation to the ACLU too!)

[Text reads:

Defending Our Values

Hi William,

We created Lyft to be a model for the type of community we want our world to be: diverse, inclusive, and safe.

This weekend, Trump closed the country’s borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.

We know this directly impacts many of our community members, their families, and friends. We stand with you, and are donating $1,000,000 over the next four years to the ACLU to defend our constitution. We ask that you continue to be there for each other – and together, continue proving the power of community.

John & Logan
Lyft Co-Founders]

 

Nicely done, Lyft. I hope you inspire others.

[UPDATE: Apple too: http://www.macrumors.com/2017/01/28/tim-cook-on-immigration-order/]


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