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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!

 


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?


Why is it so Wrong to be Wrong?

The text "Evolution of Beliefs" behind the universal symbol for "Prohibited"

We aren’t allowed to evolve our beliefs.

As I continue to think about how we may be able to really change minds over the long term, I have been regularly struck by just how horrible our society sees being wrong. Apart from a tiny (and privileged) community in the startup world espousing “fail early and often,” being wrong is seen as anathema today. It seems impossible for anyone to change their minds without being ridiculed and embarrassed. And I don’t think this is only for the Big Things nor is it reserved for well-known people.

Until we can de-stigmatize changing one’s mind, we are likely to make very little progress towards ways to actually do so.

 


Political Jewelry

A small round lapel pin made of antiqued brass displaying a Falsum character (upside-down T) surrounding by the text

Liberty and Justice for All Falsum Pin by William Aaron Waychoff

One of the first thoughts I had for a cohesive line of jewelry was political. Not so much on it’s face – on the surface, it was cute even – but it was commenting on something in society very pointedly.* The most recent jewelry I have developed is political not just in its soul, but on its surface as well. See my Resist post for more on those specifics. I have had many other pieces come to mind that incorporate strong social-commentary.

It seems that I may have a specific interest developing.

I have been thinking about some of the ways that political jewelry works and how it plays in society at both the individual and interpersonal levels. While I approached this a bit dubious of the potential for strong impacts (mainly because I was so interested I was sure there was nothing to find) I now believe that there are very real benefits to what jewelry with a political message can do. Below, I’ll speak briefly about some of these. I’m still exploring this line of thought, and will likely be doing so for years to come, so I’m sure there will be future pieces that focus on refinements and deeper thoughts on all of this.

Primarily Personal Benefits:

Expression and Defiance

Right now, every day before I leave my house, I put on one of my Resist lapel pins, buttons, or necklaces. No matter which I choose to wear on a given day, the act of donning that little sliver of speech makes me feel a jolt of energy, of optimism, of strength. I literally feel a little more like I can face each day and do what is required of me when I put on a falsum. Part of it is because I’m declaring to the world that I have feelings on these matters our country is facing. Part is because standing up to authority, even in such a small way, still feels novel or taboo to me and the thrill of doing so is exhilarating. And certainly part of it is reaffirming, every day, that there are actions I can take that will make this world better. There is some piece of fear buried in there as well, because even such a small thing can definitely make one a target.

It may all be anecdotal at this point, but I’m over the idea that my feelings are unique to myself. They may be far from universal, but I’m not a special snowflake.

Supporting a Cause

By buying a piece of jewelry that advocates for a cause, a purchaser explicitly and implicitly supports that cause. This can be the primary reason for many kinds of purchases. When a product becomes, intentionally or otherwise, associated with a cause, it can be the cause that people are supporting with their cash more than even the desire to own the product. With something like jewelry and other durable goods, the remembrance of that initial support is rekindled every time the purchaser experiences that object. I don’t think this feeling of self-affirmation should be underemphasized. While it would be simplistic to call this selfish behavior, it is important to understand that there is a significant personal gain associated with the purchase and wearing of political jewelry. With jewelry in particular, this personal reward seems important.

Finding a Voice and Acceptance

Certainly every artist I know wants to create in a way that resonates, attracts, and speaks to at least some others. While this can, and often is, a purely aesthetic attraction, it is not limited to that. Political jewelry has the opportunity to appeal to wearers both on an aesthetic and activist level. Many items that classify as non-essential likely fall into this category. (Branded apparel, art objects, stickers, etc.) The idea that something resonates with a large crowd brings value to both the creator and the consumer. In cases, it can be the driving force behind the artist’s energy. Without the possibility of such a payoff, some artists surely would pursue different directions in life. But without art that resonates with them, many consumers would not pursue the world of artistic or designed products at all.

Primarily Interpersonal Benefits:

Discovery

To use the language of online advertisers, wearing political jewelry can help surface content relevant to viewer’s interests. When someone sees another wearing an intriguing piece of jewelry that is either enigmatic or obviously aligned with particular views, the likelihood of a personal interaction between the viewer and the wearer likely increases. This can lead to viewers being introduced to new causes, new voices, and new perspectives. The wearer can similarly be exposed. In the most excellent circumstances, the two can both find new connections and friends.
Certainly I have had this experience multiple times of late due to my daily wear of the falsum jewelry.

Commerce

Like it or not, we currently live in a capitalistic society. My personal beliefs on capitalism are complex, but we have a very deeply entrenched set of rules for how things are to be rewarded in our society. Part of that includes the exchange of money for just about everything. I think it’s easy to criticize creators for “capitalizing” on hard or tragic events, and surely it happens in inappropriate ways all the time. But apart from independant wealth, a creator has got to eat and, ideally, money for that food comes from selling the creator’s works. It always seems harder when there is a cause involved, especially one as big as the direction of the worlds most powerful country in the years and decades to come. But profiting off one’s creative work is an integral part of how our society currently works. I work really hard to be fair-to-generous when selling my political work, as do many others. People do tacky things sometimes, though.

Solidarity & Conformity 

I’ve thought about this deeply and I think it’s best summarized simply. People are more likely to act when they know that they are not alone in their thoughts and feelings. Symbols, as potentially expressed in political jewelry, broadcast the wearer’s beliefs on certain subjects. The idea that others around you share similar thoughts and feelings can be very powerful. It gives us permission to believe the things we believe. It gives us strength to act. This, I think, is possibly the most important part of political jewelry. Wearing it and sharing it gives us strength. Strength makes it possible to act. Only action leads to change.
Additionally, when someone who is out of the loop sees the appearance of a new symbol or motif, whether they know what it means or not, it can put pressure on them to find out what it means and there is a certain social pressure toward believing the same concepts that is exerted.

These aspects and the way they interact are the most interesting concepts of the bunch to me and the one I’ve thought most about. Expect more on this soon.
Surely there are other ways that political jewelry plays with our psyches and societies, but I think this list is enough to convince me to embrace it further. I think that there is a lot of jewelry, a lot of messages, and a lot of study packed into this concept.

* I’m being cagey here only because, after years, I’m in active development on this and talking about current projects in specifics somehow lets the magic out for me. I’ll try to remember to link this post to the project announcement when it eventually comes.


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.

 


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