Don’t worry, we’re like you.

So, I’m not in the states right now, but this antismoking PSA apparently ran during the Grammys last night. For those who can’t be bothered to click the link, it’s a Tinder-themed music video urging young people to swipe left (aka reject) smokers. It’s an ad that’s got everything:

A girl group formed on the X factor;

Said girl group, dancing.
Said girl group, dancing.

YouTube stars;

Here, Grace Helbig groovin.

Hashtags;

Yes, #perplexing.
Yes, #perplexing.

A Bound 2 reference;

Horses galloping in slo mo, of course.
Horses galloping in slo mo, of course.

An Azalea Banks rip off (itself arguably a Seapunk “rip off,” which, discussion for another time);

Yes.
Yes.

Junk food;

Yes.

and an explosion transitioning into the end slate.

Generation Y & Z <3 explosions
Generation Y & Z ❤ explosions

It is… a lot to take in. And not just for the reasons that pundits are identifying, namely the fact that anyone born after 1994 will find the content disorienting and potentially inaccessible. The target, after all, was born after 1994. It’s a video made to speak their language, which is a task in and of itself riddled with potential problems. Erik Oster of Adfreak (via Agencyspy) writes:

Between the myriad cameos from YouTube celebrities and references to Internet culture in general, the ad tries really hard to present anti-smoking sentiment as cool and smoking as a turn off. Of course, as has always been the problem with anti-smoking messaging to teens, this has the potential to backfire. While it may scare some into avoiding smoking so they can get some action, more rebellious teens may resent being so clearly targeted and light up anew.

So, fine, there’s that. That’s a problem, sure, fine. But not the problem I’d like to briefly discuss, which is, essentially, about cultural appropriation in an attempt to speak to appeal to a specific target.

I fucking love the agency that made this ad; they’re consistently responsible for great work. And don’t get me wrong, I understand (and don’t see anything inherently wrong with) strategy at play here. That’s almost the problem, that the strategy is so blindingly brazen that I can practically see the brief over the video itself. It’s essentially a series of sharable GIFs linked together, something meant to be shown as a package but also to be chopped up into bits and thrown about on Tumblr. If this is the goal, however, it might be best to create rather than “borrow” elements of the culture, a la this thing:

Eesh

 

A borrowed look and feel does not a genuine article make. In fact, sometimes aesthetic has nothing to do with it; see the George Glass/”Skule”  situation on tumblr. This is just random, broad application of fonts and backgrounds, without context or even real mimicry. And using so many of these cultural references so loosely has greater risks than simply putting off the target; it potentially makes the ones broadcasting the message look like sheep in wolves’ clothing. The effect is menacing instead of inviting, a “Don’t worry, we get you” delivered through far too sharp teeth.

I think that’s something that can be generalised to all audiences, not just teenagers. “Repackaging” cultural artefacts is not new, and is also not generally beloved. Surely not every ad can or will be a classic, but at the very least I’d assume we’d steer clear of certain tactics that are tried and untrue, so to speak.

There are ways to engage with specific audiences with ads and content that’s culturally resonant. It usually (but not always) involves producing brand new things that the audience would actually like to see. To stick to the youths, there’s a recent campaign by 180LA for HP that I thought incorporated the same type of Internet talent quite nicely and ultimately resulted in a socially valuable commodity, in this case a good music video. This isn’t to say that everything made for specific communities has to be driven and ultimately produced by group members, or that every campaign has to be a content campaign. It is to say that culture can’t just be ripped off. Doing so means you might end up with something… well, something like this.

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Uncertainty

A side effect of my swimming in literature surrounding certainty, verifiability, and credibility is my increasing fixation on the epistemically shaky terrain we occupy, whether we like it or not. So many reassurances, platitudes, and dog-eared truisms boil down to some type of formal or informal fallacy.  As long as I resist miring myself in philosophical texts (at least until I’m through writing my thesis), I’m left cradling a humdrum, freshman year humanities student conclusion: there’s no way to be certain about anything, anyway.

I’ll resist diving into the series of arguments that place “truth” in the realm of social facts (though, in my opinion, this might be where the money’s at) and will spare you a relativistic rant. Instead, a different question: Is uncertainty so bad?

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The Stickiness of Subjectivity

Lately, I’ve been getting trapped in my thoughts. It’s a really nerdy version of the Life Alert commercial from the 80’s, but it’s my brain instead of the old woman screaming “I’ve fallen! And I can’t get up!”

Most mornings, as I’m making my breakfast at an ungodly hour, I start to think about my thesis topic: knowledge and persuasion on the Internet. Why do people believe certain things they find online? Is it the structure of the content? The environment in which the content is presented? The content itself? Some other variable I haven’t identified? Can these conditions be manipulated? Are these the relevant conditions? How do people come to believe things in general? Is it so different from what guides belief development on the web (and why/why not)? What does it mean to “believe” something (and, for that matter, to believe in something)?  Do those who “believe” the right things fare better in life, and does the conclusion apply to all types of things? In some cases, does it really matter if we “believe” something but the inverse is true? What defines “true”? Who defines “true”? What is true?  What is truth? What is? Cut to me repeatedly smashing my fist into my cereal and sobbing unconsolably as soy milk splatters on the ceiling.

Drilling down to the logical root of a question is important. The above paragraph is just doing that along a specific trajectory of inquiry. Know what else it is? Something that resembles the ramblings of a stoned sophomore sinking his hand into a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos (“What is? No, think about it, think about it–what. is?“), or else the internal monologue of a Starbucks panhandler who may or may not have a collection of tin foil hats. It’s simultaneously spacey and frenetic. It sounds a little unhinged.

I’m being harsh. I recognize, though, the futility of this exercise, something that stems from the delightfully flummoxing nature of subjectivity. Let’s just take one of the questions in the chain: What does it mean to “believe” something? Ask a lawyer, a make-up artist, a philosopher, a sociologist, a priest, a psychologist, a neuroscientist, a historian, a photographer, a politician, a teacher, and–oh, God–a writer this question, and you’ll get unique answers that complement and converge as much as they utterly depart from one another. For some, a response would come accompanied by a minor fumble for a reply or incredulity at the very query. These types of broad interdisciplinary questions are a bit like alphabet soup: tasty, if not ultimately fulfilling,  and not entertained very often by most adults. Also, a little high in sodium.

So what? Subjectivity is the spice of intellectual life (a statement up for debate–and isn’t that lovely). No matter how often I pit explanations against each other in a weird-o gladiatorial fight to the death, no universally-championed victor will emerge. Likewise, there will be no critical hits, though plenty of injuries depending on one’s perspective. I have to reconcile myself to eventually hand-selecting a set of solutions for the sake of my own sanity, but the universe of possible answers will remain. And it will proliferate.

There’s no easy escape from mental quicksand. Any attempt to catapult myself out will result in me being sucked back in. Not to say that resistance is futile; rather, the way out is hand over hand, article over article, slowly but surely pulling myself out of the muck. Hey, who said grad school at Oxford wasn’t glamorous?