Tag Archives: advertising

What’s wrong with advertising?

These two views seem to go together often:

  1. People are consuming too much
  2. The advertising industry makes people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want, worsening the problem

The reasoning behind 1) is usually that consumption requires natural resources, and those resources will run out. It follows from this that less natural-resource intensive consumption is better* i.e. the environmentalist prefers you to spend your money attending a dance or a psychologist than buying new clothes or jet skis, assuming the psychologist and dance organisers don’t spend all their income on clothes and jet skis and such.

How does the advertising industry get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise buy? One practice they are commonly accused of is selling dreams, ideals, identities and attitudes along with products. They convince you (at some level) that if you had that champagne your whole life would be that much more classy. So you buy into the dream though you would have walked right past the yellow bubbly liquid.

But doesn’t this just mean they are selling you a less natural-resource-intensive product? The advertisers have packaged the natural-resource intensive drink with a very non-natural-resource intensive thing – classiness – and sold you the two together.

Yes, maybe you have bought a drink you wouldn’t otherwise have bought. But overall this deal seems likely to be a good thing from the environmentalist perspective: it’s hard to just sell pure classiness, but the classy champagne is much less resource intensive per dollar than a similar bottle of unclassy drink, and you were going to spend your dollars on something (effectively – you may have just not earned them, which is equivalent to spending them on leisure).

If the advertiser can manufacture enough classiness for thousands of people with a video camera and some actors, this is probably a more environmentally friendly choice for those after classiness than most of their alternatives, such as ordering stuff in from France. My guess is that in general, buying intangible ideas along with more resource intensive products is better for the environment than the average alternative purchase a given person would make.  There at least seems little reason to think it is worse.

Of course that isn’t the only way advertisers make people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want. Sometimes they manufacture fake intangible things, so that when you get the champagne it doesn’t really make you feel classy. That’s a problem with dishonest people in every industry though. Is there any reason to blame ‘advertisers’ rather than ‘cheats’?

Another thing advertisers do is tell you about things you wouldn’t have thought of wanting otherwise, or remind you of things you had forgotten about. When innovators and entrepreneurs do this we celebrate it. Is there any difference when advertisers do it? Perhaps the problem is that advertisers tend to remind you of resource intensive, material desires more often than they remind you to consume more time with your brother, or to meditate more. This is somewhat at odds with the complaint that they try to sell you dreams and attitudes etc, but perhaps they do a bit of both.

Or perhaps they try to sell you material goods to satisfy longings you would otherwise fulfil non-materially? For instance recommending new clothes where you might otherwise have sought self-confidence through posture or public speaking practice or doing something worthy of respect. Some such effect seems plausible, though I doubt a huge one.

Overall it seems advertisers probably have effects in both directions. It’s not clear to me which is stronger. But insofar as they manage to package up and sell feelings and identities and other intangibles,  those who care for the environment should praise them.

*This is not to suggest that I believe natural resource conservation is particularly important, compared to using human time well for instance.

When to explain

It is commonly claimed that humans’ explicit conscious faculties arose for explaining to others about themselves and their intentions. Similarly when people talk about designing robots that interact with people, they often mention the usefulness of designing such robots to be able to explain to you why it is they changed your investments or rearranged your kitchen.

Perhaps this is a generally useful principle for internally complex units dealing with each other: have some part that keeps an overview of what’s going on inside and can discuss it with others.

If so, the same seems like it should be true of companies. However my experience with companies is that they are often designed specifically to prevent you from being able to get any explanations out of them. Anyone who actually makes decisions regarding you seems to be guarded by layers of people who can’t be held accountable for anything. They can sweetly lament your frustrations, agree that the policies seem unreasonable, sincerely wish you a nice day, and most importantly, have nothing to do with the policies in question and so can’t be expected to justify them or change them based on any arguments or threats you might make.

I wondered why this strategy should be different for companies, and a friend pointed out that companies do often make an effort at more high level explanations of what they are doing, though not necessarily accurate: vision statements, advertisements etc. PR is often the metaphor for how the conscious mind works after all.

So it seems the company strategy is more complex: general explanations coupled with avoidance of being required to make more detailed ones of specific cases and policies. So, is this strategy generally useful? Is it how humans behave? Is it how successful robots will behave?*

Inspired by an interaction with ETS, evidenced lately by PNC and Verizon

*assuming there is more than one

One-on-one charity

People care less about large groups of people than individuals, per capita and often in total. People also care more when they are one of very few people who could act, not part of a large group. In many large scale problems, both of these effects combine. For instance climate change is being caused by a vast number of people and will affect a vast number of people. Many poor people could do with help from any of many rich people. Each rich person sees themselves as one of a huge number who could help that mass ‘the poor’.

One strategy a charity could use when both of these problems are present at once is to pair its potential donors and donees one-to-one. They could for instance promise the family of 109 Seventeenth St. that a particular destitute girl is their own personal poor person, and they will not be bothered again (by that organisation) about any other poor people, and that this person will not receive help from anyone else (via that organisation). This would remove both of the aforementioned problems.

If they did this, I think potential donors would feel more concerned about their poor person than they previously felt about the whole bunch of them. I also think they would feel emotionally blackmailed and angry. I expect the latter effects would dominate their reactions. If you agree with my expectations, an interesting question is why it would be considered unfriendly behaviour on the part of the charity. If you don’t, an interesting question is why charities don’t do something like this.

Don’t warn nonspecifically!

Warning Sign Phillip Island Victoria

This is a decent warning sign. Image via Wikipedia

I hate safety warnings. It’s not that I’m hurt by someone out there’s condescending belief that I can’t work out whether irons are for drying children. And I welcome the endless mental accretion of terrifying facts about obscure ways one can die. What really bothers me is that safety warnings often contain no information except ‘don’t do X’.

In a world covered in advice not to do X, and devoid of information about what will happen if you do X, except it will be negative sometimes, it is hard and irritating to work out when it is appropriate to do X. Most things capable of being costly are a good idea some of the time. And if you were contemplating doing X, you probably have some reason. On top of that, as far as I can tell many of the warnings are about effects so weak that if you wanted to do X for some reason, that would almost certainly overwhelm the reason not to. But since all you are ever told is not to do X, you are never quite sure whether you are being warned off some trivial situation where a company haven’t actually tested whether their claims about their product still apply, or protected from a genuine risk.

My kettle came with a warning that if I ever boil it dry, I should replace it. Is this because it will become liable to explode? Because it might become discoloured? My sandwich meat came with a warning not to eat it after seven days. Presumably this is because they can’t guarantee a certain low level of risk after that, but since I don’t know what that level is, it’s not so useful to me. If I have a lot else to eat I will want a lower level of risk than if I’m facing the alternative of having to go shopping right now or of fainting from hunger. Medical warnings are very similar.

Perhaps it’s sensible to just ignore warnings when they conflict much with your preconceptions or are costly. In that case, how am I worse off than if there just weren’t warnings? How can I complain about people not giving me enough information? What obligation do they have to give me any?

There is the utilitarian argument that telling me would be much more beneficial than it is costly. But besides that, I think I am often worse off than if warning givers just shut up most of the time. Ignoring warnings is distracting and psychologically costly, even if you have decided that that’s the best way to treat them. There is a definite drop in sandwich enjoyableness if it’s status as ‘past its use by date’ lingers in your mind. It’s hard to sleep after being told that you should rush to an emergency room.

I presume there are heaps of pointless warnings because they avoid legal trouble. But this doesn’t explain why they all contain so little information. It is more effort to add information of course. But such a minuscule bit more: if you think people shouldn’t do X, presumably you have a reason already, you just have to write it down. If you can’t write it down, you probably shouldn’t be warning. An addition of a few words to the standard label or sign can’t be noticeably expensive. For more important risks, knowing the reason should encourage people to follow the advice more because they can distinguish them from unimportant risks. For unimportant risks, knowing the reason should encourage people to not follow the advice more, allowing them to enjoy the product or whatever, while leaving the warning writer safe from legal action. Win win! What am I missing?

I am anti-awareness and you should be too

People seem to like raising awareness a lot. One might suspect too much, assuming the purpose is to efficiently solve whatever problem the awareness is being raised about. It’s hard to tell whether it is too much by working out how much is the right amount then checking if it matches what people do. But a feasible heuristic approach is to consider factors that might bias people one way or the other, relative to what is optimal.

Christian Lander at Stuff White People Like suggests some reasons raising awareness should be an inefficiently popular solution to other people’s problems:

This belief [that raising awareness will solve everything] allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges…

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets.  In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference…

So to summarize – you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?)…

He seems to suspect that people are not trying to solve problems, but I shan’t argue about that here. At least some people think that they are trying to effectively campaign; this post is concerned with biases they might face. Christian  may or may not demonstrate a bias for these people. All things equal, it is better to solve problems in easy, fun, safe ways. However if it is easier to overestimate the effectiveness of easy, fun, safe things,  we probably raise awareness too much. I suspect this is true. I will add three more reasons to expect awareness to be over-raised.

First, people tend to identify with their moral concerns. People identify with moral concerns much more than they do with their personal, practical concerns for instance. Those who think the environment is being removed too fast are proudly environmentalists while those who think the bushes on their property are withering too fast do not bother to advertise themselves with any particular term, even if they spend much more time trying to correct the problem. It’s not part of their identity.

People like others to know about their identities. And raising awareness is perfect for this. Continually incorporating one’s concern about foreign forestry practices into conversations can be awkward, effortful and embarrassing. Raising awareness displays your identity even more prominently, while making this an unintended side effect of costly altruism for the cause rather than purposeful self advertisement.

That raising awareness is driven in part by desire to identify is evidenced by the fact that while ‘preaching to the converted’ is the epitome of verbal uselessness, it is still a favorite activity for those raising awareness, for instance at rallies, dinners and lectures. Wanting to raise awareness to people who are already well aware suggests that the information you hope to transmit is not about the worthiness of the cause. What else new could you be showing them? An obvious answer is that they learn who else is with the cause. Which is some information about the worthiness of the cause, but has other reasons for being presented. Robin Hanson has pointed out that breast cancer awareness campaign strategy relies on everyone already knowing about not just breast cancer but about the campaign. He similarly concluded that the aim is probably to show a political affiliation.

These are some items given away to promote Bre...

Image via Wikipedia

In many cases of identifying with a group to oppose some foe, it is useful for the group if you often declare your identity proudly and commit yourself to the group. If we are too keen to raise awareness about our identites, perhaps we are just used to those cases, and treat breast cancer like any other enemy who might be scared off by assembling a large and loyal army who don’t like it. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, I think our enthusiasm for increased awareness of everything is given a strong push by our enthusiasm for visible identifying with moral causes.

Secondly and relatedly, moral issues arouse a  person’s drive to determine who is good and who is bad, and to blame the bad ones. This urge to judge and blame should  for instance increase the salience of everyone around you eating meat if you are a vegetarian. This is at the expense of giving attention to any of the larger scale features of the world which contribute to how much meat people eat and how good or bad this is for animals. Rather than finding a particularly good way to solve the problem of too many animals suffering, you could easily be sidetracked by fact that your friends are being evil. Raising awareness seems like a pretty good solution if the glaring problem is that everyone around you is committing horrible sins, perhaps inadvertently.

Lastly, raising awareness is specifically designed to be visible, so it is intrinsically especially likely to spread among creatures who copy one another. If I am concerned about climate change, possible actions that will come to mind will be those I have seen others do. I have seen in great detail how people march in the streets or have stalls or stickers or tell their friends. I have little idea how people develop more efficient technologies or orchestrate less publicly visible political influence, or even how they change the insulation in their houses. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is too much awareness raising; it is less effort to do things you already know how to do, so it is better to do them, all things equal. However too much awareness raising will happen if we don’t account for there being a big selection effect other than effectiveness in which solutions we will know about, and expend a bit more effort finding much more effective solutions accordingly.

So there are my reasons to expect too much awareness is raised. It’s easy and fun, it lets you advertise your identity, it’s the obvious thing to do when you are struck by the badness of those around you, and it is the obvious thing to do full stop. Are there any opposing reasons people would tend to be biased against raising awareness? If not, perhaps I should reconsider stopping telling you about this problem and finding a more effective way to lower awareness instead.

Why is gender equality so rude?

I don’t see much anti-female sexism in my immediate surrounds; I notice more that is anti-male. But one place I have been continually put off by anti-female sexism is in attempts to promote gender equality. It seems especially prominent in efforts to seduce me to traditionally non-feminine academic areas. If my ratio of care about interesting subjects vs. social situations were different I might have been put off by the seeming prospect of being treated like a defective sacrifice to political correctness.

Some examples from the advertising and equity policies of various academic places I’ve been:

‘Women can make valuable contributions to …’ implies that this is an issue of serious contention. If most people thought women were of zero value in some fields, this would be a positive statement about women, but they don’t. Worse, the author can’t make a stronger statement than that it is possible for women to create more than zero value.

Appeals to consider myself capable of e.g. engineering despite being female make the same error but this time suggesting that the viewer herself is likely in doubt. Such a statement can only be useful to women so ignorant of their own characteristics that they need to rely on their gender as deciding evidence in what career to devote their lives to, so it suggests the female audience are clueless. The smartest women have likely noticed that they are smart, and will not be encouraged by the prospect of joining a field where others expect them to be intellectually insecure special people to be reassured and included for human rights purposes.

Statements such as women are valuable because they can provide a different perspective on computer science, imply that women can’t understand a computer the usual way, but might help figure out how to make it more personable or something. If this is true, why not just say ‘women are not that valuable in computer science’?

Policies of employing a certain number of female staff to provide role models or leadership for female students imply that females would rather aspire to femalehood than to superior ability (presumably the decision criteria forgone).

Recommendations that courses like mathematics should be more focussed on women say that while existing mathematics is about completely gender neutral abstract concepts, not men, it is unsuitable for women. Presumably either women are not up to abstract concepts, or women can’t be motivated to think about something other than women. Despite whichever inadequacy, they should be encouraged to do mathematics anyway by being taught to work out the mean angle of their cleavage or something.

Why do so many attempts at equality seem so counterproductive?  The above seem to fall into two processes: first, assuming that society believes women might be useless, advertising this, and arguing against it so badly as to confirm it, and second, trying to suck up to women by making things more female related at the cost of features capable women would care for. Perhaps those more concerned about anti-female sexism make these errors more because they have an unusually strong impression of society being anti-female and their own obsession with femininity makes it easy to overestimate that of most women.

Advertise while honoring the dead

Roadside suggestions not to kill yourself driving seem to be getting more humorous around here, which suggests that someone is trying to improve them. The best advertisements for careful driving I’ve seen are the little white stick crosses tied to trees and telegraph poles with withered flowers and photographs. I doubt I’m alone in finding the death of a real person smashed into a telegraph pole on my usual route more of a prompt to be careful than an actor looking stern at me or a pun (‘slowing down won’t kill you’). Plus nothing makes an activity feel safe like a gargantuan authority calmly informing me of the risks of it. If the government’s advertising something, everyone knows about it, and if there’s no panic or banning, it’s probably safe. A bedraggled, unprepared memorial is a reminder that ‘they’ aren’t really protecting me.

But how could a road authority use these? They could either increase the number or the visibility of them. The usual methods of increasing the number defeat the purpose, and inventing fatal crashes might make people cross. Making memorials more visible is hard, because they are put up by families, besides which the home-made look is valuable, so billboard versions wouldn’t do so well. One solution is just to give bereaved families a bit of the money they usually use on a billboard to construct a temporary memorial of their choice at the site. That way more people would do it, and they could afford more extravagant decoration, so enhancing visibility.

Trust in the adoration of strangers

Attractive people are more trusting when they think they can be seen:

Here, we tested the effects of cues of observation on trusting behavior in a two-player Trust game and the extent to which these effects are qualified by participants’ own attractiveness. Although explicit cues of being observed (i.e., when participants were informed that the other player would see their face) tended to increase trusting behavior, this effect was qualified by the participants’ other-rated attractiveness (estimated from third-party ratings of face photographs). Participants’ own physical attractiveness was positively correlated with the extent to which they trusted others more when they believed they could be seen than when they believed they could not be seen. This interaction between cues of observation and own attractiveness suggests context dependence of trusting behavior that is sensitive to whether and how others react to one’s physical appearance.

Probably rightly so. It’s interesting that people do not get used to the average level of good treatment expected for their attractiveness, but are sensitive to the difference in treatment when visible and when not. Is it inbuilt that we should expect some difference there, or is it just very noticeable?

I wonder whether widespread beauty enhancement increases overall trust in society, and enhances productivity accordingly, or whether favorable treatment and returned trust both adapt to relative position. Does advertising suggesting that the world is chock full of model material decrease trust between real people?

How does raising awareness stop prejudice?

Imagine you are in the habit of treating people who have lesser social status as if they are below you. One day you hear an advertisement talking about a group of people you know nothing about. It’s main thrust is that these people are as good as everyone else, or perhaps even special in some ways which the advertisement informs you are good, and that therefore you should respect them.

ANTaR informs us that Aboriginals do not get enough respect

ANTaR informs us that Aboriginals do not get enough respect

What do you infer?

  1. These people are totally normal except for being special in various exciting ways, and you should respect them.
  2. These people are so poorly respected by others that somebody feels the need to buy advertising to rectify the situation.

What about the next day when you hear that other employers are going to court for failing to employ these people enough?

I can’t think of any better way to stop people wanting to associate with someone than by suggesting to them that nobody else wants to. Low social status seems like the last thing you can solve by raising awareness.

Subconscious stalking?

Just seeing another person look at something can tend to make you like it a bit more than if you see them looking in another direction:

In this study, we found that objects that are looked at by other people are liked more than objects that do not receive the attention of other people (Experiment 1). This suggests that observing averted gaze can have an impact on the affective appraisals of objects in the environment. This liking effect was absent when an arrow was used to cue attention (Experiment 2). This underlines the importance of other people’s interactions with objects for generating our own impressions of such stimuli in the world.

The authors suggest this is because people really do tend to look at things more if they like them, and that another person likes something is information about its value. This makes sense, and even more if we assume that the ancestral environment contained fewer eye catching people paid to prominently give items their attention.

Is observing the eye movement of others an earlier version of facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Is observing the eye movement of others a precursor to facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Another possibility though is that people want to have coinciding tastes to those around them often, so we are not so much interested in clues to the item’s inherent value, but directly in the other person’s values. In that case if we evolved nicely we would react more to some people looking than to others.

Sure enough, this study found that such an effect seems to hold for attractive people, but not unattractive:

In a conditioning paradigm, novel objects were associated with either attractive or unattractive female faces, either displaying direct or averted gaze. An affective priming task showed more positive automatic evaluations of objects that were paired with attractive faces with direct gaze than attractive faces with averted gaze and unattractive faces, irrespective of gaze direction. Participants’ self-reported desire for the objects matched the affective priming data.

Added: These days we can discover (and adapt to) many people’s likes and dislikes prior to meeting them extensively, as long as they post them all over Facebook or the like. If the tendency to coordinate our values based on minor cues was good enough to evolve, does the possibility of doing so much more effectively via online stalking give a selective advantage to those who use it?