A place for new ideas to settle.

12 April 2017

Do people want to be advertised to?

So the lots of people (especially on the Internet) got mad at a video advertisement recently. Fair enough; I watched the ad in question and it's cringe-inducing, clearly the product of too many marketing meetings and too many focus groups from not the right demographics. But almost immediately after seeing the first think-piece headlines, a more troubling question came to my mind.

See, the narrative was overwhelmingly "the company really dropped the ball with this ad," "the company totally misunderstood the current political climate with this ad"... generally this ad was disappointing. But unspoken seemed to be an agreement that there is a hypothetical "good advertisement."

The question, then, that came to mind: Do people actually see advertising as a worthwhile element of their lives?

Apparently, yes; they jump at the chance to extol the virtues of "radvertising" but are just as quick to shame "badvertising." From the Gawker blogs (rad rad rad bad bad) and other random time-waster sites (rad bad) to mainstream media (rad bad), writers are meticulously comparing and contrasting ads.

But comparing and contrasting presupposes a spectrum of "good" and "bad" ads. Is there really such a thing as a "good" ad?

In my view, no. Advertisements are, at what might be called their "peak" if not their "best," a category of art that tries to associate certain feelings (generically, demand) with the purchase of a company's product, so that people go out and actually buy the company's product. Some people seem to have developed a mental model where noticing the feeling of "I want that" is called "good."

(Advertisement can become true art, but only once there's a safe distance between the advertising object and the product it's pointing to―say, for example, a hundred years later when the specific product is no longer available.)

At their worst, it's a company trying to short-circuit your brain to re-interpret "give us your money!" as "owning this thing will make you feel [cool/sexy/important/confident/competent/fun]!" through kludgy social engineering. We notice this influence, and we call it "bad."

That's not necessarily to say that market transactions have a "corrupting influence." But advertisement is a form of communication between a firm and a potential customer, and communication can be virtuous or vicious. Certain recognized forms of abuse are primarily communication-based, for example, and need not involve physical contact.

Bringing it back to the hot takes about this particular advertisement, I wonder: why bother getting extra mad about an advertisement that's muddled or even offensive? It's an advertisement, so shouldn't the default position be somewhat negative? Ads are already generically bad, an annoyance of living in the modern age. We don't need to be disappointed in any particular one...

... unless, of course, we really want them to meet some standard of what a "proper" advertisement should be. Which presupposes that we should consume advertisements (as advertising) at all!

When a firm is trying to say "here is a product; give us your money!" why should we also expect it to say "this company supports $SOCIAL_ISSUE!" in the same metaphorical breath?
Hello fellow Bernie Sanders supporter! I also supported Bernie Sanders. Help me move my couch?
Coming from a flesh and blood human person, the juxtaposition of an impersonal request with a possibly unrelated applause line would come off as deeply disturbing! I know that corporations aren't "people" in the same sense, but does that mean we can drop that particular expectation?

And to the extent that I even do this, I want to stop sharing advertisements with people. (Of course, once I try to notice and stop myself, I'll probably see that I do it an alarming amount.) Will I occasionally share product reviews? Sure. (I write my own reviews, too!) Previews, in the case of digital media? Maybe. But what use is a vaguely concept-driven short video with corporate #branding to anyone not in the business of producing said videos? What use is talking about the alleged "merits" or "disappointments" of a specific advertisement, as an advertisement?

What use, except to signal one's acceptance of the ideology of advertising? (And that's enough of that for one post.)

25 January 2017

Open letter to Mark Miloscia, WA State Senate

Exercising freedom of conscience: A virtuous act for any American or Christian

Dear sir,

The First Amendment to the Constitution seems clear to me: civil protest and peaceful assembly are basic American liberties. They are also Christian liberties, which also seems obvious to me given the history of the Christian religion; but as I am not a Christian, perhaps I am wrong about that.
Though I may not be a Christian, I still respect the many Christians over America's history who have stood their ground against the government---facing public ridicule, arrest, even physical injury or death---because of their beliefs.

Specific examples that come to my mind are abolitionists, suffrage and civil rights proponents, and conscientious objectors. Moreover, I firmly believe that Americans or Christians have the right to assemble and protest against abortion or extending marriage beyond certain traditional interpretations, even if I just as firmly believe that the government should not meddle in matters of pregnancy or the loving relationships of consenting adults.

Did you call a political protest "unAmerican" or "unChristian" merely because it opposes the current order of things? In my view, to do this is to demean and disparage the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the coalition of church leaders who marched with him to end segregation; the Hofer brothers who perished from abuse in military prison rather than go against their Hutterite faith and fight in World War I; Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister who advocated abolition of slavery and universal suffrage; on and on throughout the history of this nation.

Of course, those people too were "unAmerican" and "unChristian" according to some of their contemporaries. Were those critics correct? Or was it "unAmerican" or "unChristian" specifically to march for those beliefs, even if the beliefs are eminently American or Christian (or both)? If so, does the First Amendment have an escape clause when the protests are against certain American values, or certain Christian values? I don't see one, but perhaps you can explain my error.

Or will you release a similar statement condemning those people who participated in the Washington March for Life on Monday, 23 January? Surely they acted much as the Women's March participants or the inauguration protesters did, only for a slightly different cause... but it seems possible that some of the same women marched in all three events. Do they start being Americans and Christians once they participate in "correct" demonstrations? Is it American for every citizen to hold entirely the same set of beliefs?
In the end, I guess I'm just confused how you intend to remain in office after slandering so many Washington State residents, Christians, and American citizens.

Thank you for your time. I wish you good fortune in any future recall campaign.


Stephen Peterson