Mass Moralizing

When a McDonald’s ad shows a dad and a young daughter bonding in the drive through lane, all smiles and excitement, it is claiming that eating at McDonald’s with one’s child is a way of giving to the child, perhaps repaying the child for neglect, a way to foster warm family relationships. We do not measure this claim against the real world, we measure it against our desires for this to be true, for it to be possible. (more)

That is Phil Hopkins, author of the new book Mass Moralizing. His main argument is we like to buy from producers who offer sermons with which that we want to identify, even when the connections between product and sermon are very weak. Donating to charity is pretty much the same process. More examples from the book:

In a television add for Jeep … we are shown a series of images, beginning with a close-up of a television remote, and proceeding through shots of various locations in the home, office, and gym in which some for of television is present displaying images the marketer clearly wants us to find both trivial and … representative. … “Jeep … ‘Going’ reality isn’t capture by a hidden camera. It doesn’t come in episodes either. You see, I don’t live to live through anyone, ever. So while everyone waits to see the next best `this,’ or an unbelievable ‘that,’, here’s the reality: there’s no `re-run’ when you’re living in the now. So while you tune in, I’ll be somewhere, getting out.” The final image is a white screen onto which fades a Jeep Liberty … and the words: “i live. i ride. i am. Jeep.” …

A mom and a little boy are shown eating a bowl of breakfast cereal together and the little boy asks, “Mom, did nana ever give you Cheerios when you were a little kid?” The mom responds, Yeah, she did.” The boy asks “Were Cheerios the same back then?” The mom responds … “Cheerios has pretty much been the same forever.” The boy looks contemplative for a moment, then says, “So … when we have Cheerios, it’s kind of like we’re having breakfast with Nana.” The mom … tears up at this point, and she nods and says, “Yeah.” She kisses the boy on the head and says again, “Yeah.” Then the Cheerios branded yellow appears on the screen with the single word: “Love” with a single cheerio for a period. …

The first commercial in the [Be A Pepper] campaign opens with a scene in an urban commuter rail station filmed in shades of gray with the camera focusing on one of the anonymous commuters, pausing and standing as if unsure how to proceed, and holding a Dr Pepper can (the only object with color in the scene). A modified version of the ironic Sammy Davis, Jr song, ”I Gotta Be Me,” begins playing, and the Dr Pepper commuter significantly takes a sip from the can and begins to tear off his shirt and tie, invoking the common superhero motif, revealing a red T-shirt underneath with the slogan “I’m One of a Kind.” The “hero” of our ad then begins to move through the crowd with new urgency and purposive air, again, with no clear destination signified, and an unfocused gaze. … As he passes others, they are inspired to tear off their own outer clothing to reveal different versions of the same “I am ..” T-shirts, sporting slogans that identify them by means of stereotypical categories: e.g., “Dreamer” worn by a street musician, “Cougar” worn by a somewhat older woman in tight skirt and high heels, “Fighter” worn by Paralympics athlete John McFall, … and two T-shirts with the slogan “I am One and Only” worn by identical twins jumping rope. …

Dove … let us hear Florence tell us that beauty is everything. … In allowing her to tell us this, Dove tells us this. Such a claim is not in “debate” with society’s definition of beauty. .. It doesn’t offer a counter argument. It merely encourages us to think ourselves as closer to the ideal than we currently do. … However powerful the messages, though, at best, Dove just shows us the problem, not what we can do about it, at least not directly. Its invitation to buy a bar of soap or a tube of cream in order to help make the world a better place is, unlike FEED or TOMS, clearly secondary, if not even more tertiary, and it doesn’t make it easy to see how its “giving” works. Rather, the Campaign is an explicit invitation to join a moral tribe, one that is configured almost completely on the basis of vague, if powerful, sentiments, and a general agreement with their “concern.”

It should be obvious in each of these cases that viewers are persuaded to associate products with attitudes and outcomes that have little to do with those products, in the absence of such ads.

Here someone who writes music lyrics saying something similar: logic has little to do with when we embrace the lyrics of a song:

Music and words together exist in the end in an older realm of magic and enchantment, a place where the nursery rhyme and the church hymn and the pop single all meet. They work as spells do – that is, either entirely, or not at all. We sing and the magic door swings open, or it doesn’t, and there’s no explaining it. … Music is so emotionally overwhelming that it pushes the discursive and explanatory roles of language aside – and it is part of the job of the libretto writer to get out of its way. …

Small fragments of sound and sense strike our hearts as shrapnel strikes our skin. They lodge and wound us, independent of their intended trajectory. The audience responds or it doesn’t. The audience is less like a crew of supercilious analysts and more like a magnet set to one pole or the other. … Our minds make meaning out of music by not making too much meaning out of it. One learns as a librettist to tiptoe to the edge of argument, and then back off to the limbo-land of implication and indirection. (more)

Since other people who hear the same ads and songs tend to make the same vague associations that we do from them, our instincts do help us by telling us what songs, products, charities etc. to associate with in order to make good impressions on others. (Hopkins says the same goes for stories, media articles, and school lessons, which rely on the same process). The problem is that this often has little to do with the actual affects of using products, donating to charities, etc. If you wanted to have accurate beliefs about those things, well all this should just terrify you. Unless you are some kind of alien, unmoved by what moves most folks, you have to realize that your mind isn’t at all set up to infer the true affects of using products, or donating to charities, etc. Beware, and avoid hearing the siren’s song, or the siren’s ad.

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  • Beyond the obvious steps of not watching commercials by Children’s Christian Fund, how would one best steel oneself in the case of charity?

  • There’s no link for the “more” after your paragraph on music.

    I was just thinking today about an Alan Sepinwall post on tv shows being partly responsible for the rapid advance of what was once called “the homosexual agenda”. Most readers presumably took it as hooray-for-pop-culture, but I was somewhat chastened because in arguments with reactionaries like Mencius Moldbug I tended to take the position that media reflects rather than causes public opinion. The more accurate that reactionary view is the more terrified it makes sense to be. Daniel Davies once referred to the surprising accuracy of the John Birch Society by noting that they had the right video but were hearing the wrong music, and I’m sure he’d say the same in this situation. But I don’t have any particular reason to believe that the influence of the media on politics will be systematically beneficial.

    • Link fixed; thanks.
      Ads having an individual affect is quite different from the ad industry having an intentional net effect. I do think ad makers are quite competitive and the net affect of ads is mostly forced by this. That is, individual ad makers making different choices wouldn’t add up to much of a net different outcome.

      • My understanding is that in economic terms brand loyalty is found only in monopolistic competition or oligopoly. So advertising could on net shift an industry away from perfect competition. Although I suppose in situations of perfect competition brands don’t bother to attempt much advertising.

      • I mean “competitive” in the sense that free entry would induce firms to min costs & max value. Ex post market power doesn’t change that.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    I am an alien, incapable of joining human tribes and I am not terrified by the arts of emotional manipulation… it’s more like an annoyance, a mild disgust and exasperation. These sensations induced me to stop consuming blatantly manipulative media (ad-supported TV or radio, mass-market news, religious and leftist commentary) a long time ago. It’s a bit lonely here in outer space but the internets are a boon 🙂

    • 4BD7A689

      I am an alien in that sense too. I am not too terrified right now either. But I’m still human, with various security flaws, and I expect that the process which has been fine tuning ads to become more compelling sirens for the population at large may well carry on optimizing itself and those ads such that at some point they will become compelling for me too. And just how compelling and mind-changing they could become given more advanced technology is worrisome.

  • Curt Adams

    Individual giving to charity, 2012: 228 billion.
    Personal consumption expenses, 2013: 11,760 billion.

    I agree dishonest, manipulative advertising is a problem but the charitable side is a really small part of it.

    This definitely confirms my desire to stay away from advertising as much as possible.

    • The point is that a lot of non charity ads take the same approach of presenting themselves as a good cause.

  • zarzuelazen

    Was doing a bit of research after the controversy about the Confederate flag, came across some renditions of the Confederate national anthem (‘Dixieland’)

    Watch this Youtube video of a ‘Dixieland’ rendition that includes powerful, emotive images from American history, illustrates the power of music and propaganda:


    The Cheerios ad was hilariously satirized in the Colbert Report, but the satire raised the point that ads like that one go too far. Other marketing campaigns have used hoaxes and “pranks”, sometimes diverting police resources.

    The question is, does all the clever psychology really win out against the resentment (fostered by decades of ever-present, annoying and outright insulting ads) people harbor when it comes to marketing (ads were a big reason for me to stop watching TV and there are many millions who actually pay money for ad-free services)? You (Robin) asked if there was actual evidence that ads work, based on a critical paper by Randall Lewis and Justin Rao (Why Do Firms Buy Ads, May 9, 2014). Perhaps the answer is that ads polarize people, some people actually view a brand more negatively because of ads, others will instead buy more of that brand. This would explain why marketeers can find “some” evidence of ads working, but I’m still not convinced ads are cost-effective.

    • I find it hard to believe there is much resentment to change ad influence. I presume that ads must typically work for something, given how consistent and common they are.

      • 4BD7A689

        I assume it’s easier to market something to a smaller, custom fraction of the population. That being said, how much of marketing’s success stems from being well tailored to marketing itself to the appropriate decision-makers in companies and relevant groups that would use it (or in other words, is there such a group of persons, sufficiently homogenous and sharing targetable traits to become a more amenable target than the population at large, such that targeting them would massively boost marketing’s success as a strategy, without being particularly efficient for the rest of the population – which it purportedly targets?)

  • Trimegistus

    In a time when the U.S. government and online lynch mobs have shown themselves willing and able to “punish” businesses which don’t loudly support their moral tribe, is it any wonder that companies are advertising heavily about their Correct Thought and party loyalty?

  • This posting is a nice rejoinder to puerile nonsense like the following:

    But if we accept that people want what they want, and just seek to get them more of that, we should praise ads. Ads inform consumers, which disciplines firms to better get consumers what they want. And if you don’t like what people want, then blame those people, not the ads. Your inability to persuade people to want what you think they should want is mostly your fault. If you can’t get people to like your product, blame them or yourself, not your competition.

    ( )

    • Silent Cal

      Though in fairness that post anticipated the objection (not adequately, in my opinion):

      >Many complain that ads inform consumers more about the images and identities associated with products than about intrinsic physical features. We buy identities when we buy products. But what is wrong with this if identities are in fact what consumers want from products? As Katja points out, buying identities is probably greener than buying physical objects.

      • Robin now writes:

        It should be obvious in each of these cases that viewers are persuaded to associate products with attitudes and outcomes that have little to do with those products, in the absence of such ads.

        It may not be obviously so, but I think associating products with outcomes having little to do with the products is (by definition) to “create new desires,” the earlier post was premised on denying.

      • Silent Cal

        I suspect the problem is rather a zero-sum nature of such associations. If you could actually create a new association “Owning a Jeep means you’re adventurous” without simultaneously creating a hint of “owning a normal car means you’re sedentary”… Well, I can’t even imagine a world where identity can just increase without bound, but I think this sort of advertising might actually be an efficient good.

        But identity clearly doesn’t work that way. Products have played some role in differentiating new identities (obviously true if we count music as a product), which might be positive, but most of what you’ll see in advertising is tug-of-war over existing identities.

      • Advertising makes it increasingly expensive to assume a given identity.

  • lump1

    There are many religions that forcefully you to shield yourself from certain things, like eating animals that have been killed improperly. Society at large seems to grudgingly respect people’s right to not do those things, even if forbidden by a minority religion.

    Given this, some religion should spring up which bids its congregants to shield themselves from advertising. Seriously, as a source of spiritual contamination, advertising seems to me far more dangerous than pork, beef or shellfish. Such a religion would both make sense, and do a great deal of good in the world if it could make advertising easier to avoid. For example, I went through a very slow customs line at JFK, where giant, unavoidable monitors played fashion ads for me, on a loop. That, just for using an airport.

    • Dave Lindbergh

      Some religion should spring up which bids its congregants to shield themselves from advertising. Seriously, as a source of spiritual contamination, advertising seems to me far more dangerous than pork, beef or shellfish.

      A little nuance seems called for.

      I often tear out ads from magazines when I see an ad for a new product on the market that seems useful.

      If there’s a new more compact line of SMD capacitors on the market, or a more efficient DC-DC converter, or whatever, without advertising, how would I find out about these new products?

      I’m obviously not talking about consumer products here. Which is my point. Painting “advertising” with a broad brush neglects the useful and necessary informational purposes that advertising serves.

      • Are these useful purposes best served by advertising? If advertising were abolished, would there not be a market for (objective) information about goods?

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Of course, there are many such things already.

        But they only work if you’re know what you’re looking for.

      • Ads = Searching

        Objective information = Chasing

      • Michael Wengler

        there would not be a market in objective information, or at least not a very good one. Only the seller can easily monetize publicizing information on her particular products, 3rd parties or buyers simply aren’t rewarded in any easy way for doing so.

    • Theophrastus

      No need for a religion…just don’t watch the idiots’ lantern, ignore ads in newspapers and switch yourself off in airports.

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  • finance whiz

    nice post

  • User_Number_S

    Just saw a commercial: Some chick, painting. Used to work for Wall Street investing in energy companies she didn’t believe in. She quit “went her own way”. The world is changed by people going their own way. Now she’s an artist now. Drive Cadillac.

  • Michael Wengler

    If you wanted to have accurate beliefs about those things, well all this should just terrify you. – See more at:

    Sure, but if you want to get maximum utility and enjoyment from your stuff, you should be quite happy at the enhancements these ads bring to something as simple as a car, cereal, or sugary carbonated water.