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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!

 


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?


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.


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