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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?


We shouldn’t have to wait for camera encryption

I recently completed a project wherein I built a proof-of-concept encrypting camera that included no changes to the essential hardware or user interface of the device, yet provided strong, on-the-fly encryption of digital photos. I want to discuss more about why I created that project.

I have been aware of the targeting of journalists for decades. This is certainly not new – leaders of all kinds of organizations have known that keeping information out of the public view is how power is amassed and retained. Stories of journalists detained, and even killed, existed in my childhood. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 1237 journalists killed since 1992.

Throughout this time, the raw information collected by journalists has also been a target. The seizing of cameras and notebooks is not a new phenomenon. The difference today is in the magnitude of information that is captured by journalists and the difficulty in securing it against seizure. Not only that, but the very equipment that journalists have come to rely upon can betray them in ways that notebooks and film cameras never could. We no longer expect journalists to return from the field with a couple of notebooks and a few rolls of film, but rather with hours of video and audio recordings, detailed location information, and thousands of high-resolution photos of their sources. To capture and store this information, journalists rely on a lot of technological equipment.

Yet the industries that provide this equipment are stubbornly behind in providing what should be considered routine and minimal capabilities to protect users, including journalists.

I was fortunate enough to attend MIT Media Lab’s Forbidden Research conference last year during which Andrew “bunnie” Huang and Edward Snowden released their initial research into better tools for monitoring cell phone transmissions. (It is possible for some phones, even in an “off” state, to transmit wireless signals.) One of the inspirations for this work was the tragic story of Marie Colvin.

Marie was a journalist in Syria preparing to report about attacks on civilian targets near the city of Homs. She and photographer Remi Ochlik were killed when radio emissions from their electronic devices, including cell phones, were used to find and target their camp with artillery. This deliberate, state-directed act against a journalist really made clear how the vast amounts of technology that have become mainstays of the journalist have also substantially increased the risk they take.

While I may not be able to do much about rogue wireless transmissions (other than to remind everyone to carry a good faraday bag), I do think I can shed a little light on how direct the path to better encryption on cameras is. As a letter, published by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and signed by 150 documentary filmmakers and photojournalists says, many manufacturers of electronic equipment have begun to implement strong, useful encryption on devices, putting the notes and other content gathered by journalists beyond the reach of those who may want to use it nefariously. However, in the area of high-quality, professional cameras, no on-the-fly encryption is currently available.

This is, simply, not an excusable state. There are no good excuses for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Olympus and others not to have added real-time encryption by now. The professional cameras offered by these companies contain very fast processing chips, and while the pursuit of faster frame rates and quicker focus is to be lauded, to not give users the choice to trade some of that performance for basic safety is pernicious.

The driving factor behind why I created my proof of concept encrypting camera is to show that it is possible to retrofit current camera models – even those on the market for years – with strong, easy-to-use encryption without hardware or user interface updates required. I want to show that it is not technical limitations preventing camera vendors from producing these devices but rather an unwillingness to provide the technology that keeps our journalists (and others) in unnecessary danger.

Cameras are seized all the time throughout the world, and with every seizure both the journalist and their sources are endangered. The Committee to Protect Journalists tells Freedom of the Press Foundation:

“Confiscating the cameras of photojournalists is a blatant attempt to silence and intimidate them, yet such attacks are so common that we could not realistically track all these incidents. The unfortunate truth is that photojournalists are regularly targeted and threatened as they seek to document and bear witness, but there is little they can do to protect their equipment and their photos.”

I am tired of waiting for companies to decide adding encryption is a commercially viable feature. I’m tired of companies actively endangering the lives of journalists when this problem that is as old as photojournalism itself can finally be solved. While the best user experience may, indeed require hardware updates, camera vendors can fix this problem now, with a software update alone, so don’t believe any of them that claim there is a major technological hurdle to jump. Don’t believe them when they say you must buy a pricey new model to get these features when they eventually do show up. These cameras can offer encryption today, and vendors should be racing to provide it.

 

Note: Look, cryptography can be complex and getting it right requires time and care, I fully understand this. Additionally, retrofitting a custom processor for new tasks can be problematic and may not result in the best possible performance. However, my research indicates that the custom processors in digital cameras may be well-suited to encryption tasks, even though there will certainly be a substantial performance penalty to pay initially. This is not an excuse for not offering the security and safety of a software update enabling real-time encryption for, at a minimum, still photos to those who are willing to make the trade-off.


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