Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Thomas J. Barratt

October 9, 2014

Advertising is the bogeyman of the Left.  It makes you desire things you never wanted.  It confuses wants and needs.  It brainwashes you to make you believe things that you otherwise would not.  In short, advertising, in this view, turns you into a slave.  By hijacking your preferences, advertising turns you into the instrument of other people’s interests.

But this negative view of advertising is mistaken in two ways.  First, it denies that you are ultimately responsible for your own thoughts and actions.  No advertising can convince you to believe or do something unless you choose to believe or do that.  You are free to ignore or disbelieve advertising, so advertising can never turn you into a slave.

Second, all communication — whether it is called advertising or not — is attempting to convince you to believe or do something.  Even warning you that advertising is trying to brainwash you is itself an effort to convince you of something.  How is that message any more pure than dirty advertising?  In fact, what would innocent, non-coercive communication look like?  Even art is a form of communication that is attempting to convince its audience of something.  So if advertising is evil I have no idea what good would be.

I love advertising.  I love it because it is a form of communication that is more self-conscious of its efforts to convince others and therefore tends to be more accountable for its success or failure in doing so.  That accountability tends to make it more engaging, meaningful, and beautiful.  If advertising isn’t these things, it fails in its effort to be persuasive.

Let’s take for example the McDonalds ad at the top of this post.  That ad manages to tell an entire story in just 30 seconds.  And it’s a really good story.  It captures the anxiety of a first kiss as beautifully as the Odyssey captures the longing to return home.  The moment when the boy realizes that her request for “no onions” on the burger means that she wants him to kiss her is as universal and essential to the human experience as anything I have seen in a museum.

Yes, I understand that McDonalds is just trying to get me to buy its products.  Everyone understands that.  But they are also providing me with useful information.  They are telling me that McDonalds is a cheap and easy place to stop on a date in case you are hungry.  And most importantly, they are telling me that McDonalds will make my burger to order so that I can enjoy their product and still kiss without onion-breath.  So, the ad provides me with useful information.  But because it seeks to be persuasive, the ad is also compelling in its story-telling, engages its audience in a meaningful way, and is beautiful to watch.

Because I think advertising is wrongly disparaged, I am nominating Thomas J. Barratt for the Al Copeland Award.  Barratt is known as the father of modern advertising.  He married into the  A&F Pears’ soap company in 1865.  As Wikipedia describes it:

Under his leadership the company instituted a systematic method of advertising its distinctive soap, in which slogans and memorable images were combined. His slogan “Good morning. Have you used Pears’ soap?” was famous in its day. It continued to be a well known catch phrase well into the twentieth century.

Barratt was keen to equate Pears with quality and high culture through his campaign methods. He acquired works of art to use in the advertisements, most famously John Everett Millais’ painting Bubbles, which he turned into an advertisement by adding a bar of Pears soap in the foreground. Millais was said to be unhappy about the alteration, but could do nothing since Barratt had acquired the copyright. Barratt followed this with a series of adverts inspired by Millais’ painting, portraying cute children in idealised middle-class homes, associating Pears with social aspiration and domestic comfort….

Barratt was not a systematic theorist of marketing, but introduced a number of ideas that were widely circulated. He was keen to define a strong brand image for Pears while also emphasising his products ubiquity with saturation campaigns. He was also aware of the need for constant reinvention, stating in 1907 that “tastes change, fashions change and the advertiser has to change with them. An idea that was effective a generation ago would fall flat, stale, and unprofitable if presented to the public today. Not that the idea of today is always better than the older idea, but it is different – it hits the present taste.”

Barratt was not only a genius and innovator because he was the first to develop advertising practices that are common today, but because he recognized the connection between art and advertising.  They are both engaging, meaningful, and beautiful forms of communication.  Both are trying to convince you to believe or do something.  And one does not sully the other.  If Andy Warhol can turn a can of soup into art, I can’t see why Barratt couldn’t turn a work of art, like the painting “Bubbles“, into an advertisement.  Unlike Warhol, Barratt actually owned the rights for the image he used.

So, whenever you hear someone rant about the evils of advertising, just think about how much free entertainment, useful information, and beautiful images you get to experience from advertising.  Think about how much the human condition is improved by plentiful and free advertising that everyone gets to enjoy.  And rest assured that advertising is no more an effort to brainwash you than an Andy Warhol painting or the blowhard ranting about advertising.

I know Al Copeland recognized the art of advertising.  That’s why he had New Orleans jazz/blues legend Dr. John sing in his early commercials.  And that’s why Thomas J. Barratt is worthy of The Al.

Nominations Solicited for the 2014 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 8, 2014

It is time once again for us to solicit nominations for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.

Last year’s winner of “The Al” was Weird Al Yankovic.  Weird Al won over an impressive set of nominees, including Penn and Teller, Kickstarter, and Bill Knudsen. In selecting Weird Al as the winner I explained:

Like Al Copeland, Weird Al may not have changed the world, but he has certainly improved the human condition.  He’s done so by making us laugh at the the absurdity of many who think highly of themselves.

In the previous year the winner of “The Al” was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheap and clean natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees:  Banksy, Ransom E. Olds, Stan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes.

In 2011 “The Al” went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon.  Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates.  Haas beat his fellow nominees:  Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010  winner of  “The Al” was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist.  He beat out  The Most Interesting Man in the World, the fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, the developers of the disposable diaper.

And the 2009 winner of “The Al” was  Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag.  She beat out Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing,  Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban,  Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee.  If I like it, I will post it with your name attached.  Remember that the basic criteria is that we are looking for someone who significantly improved the human condition even if they made a profit in doing so.  Helping yourself does not nullify helping others.  And, like Al Copeland, nominees need not be perfect or widely recognized people.

Strong Bad is Back!

October 3, 2014

Strong Bad is back with a new email and rap video.

It’s no Crack Stuntman, but it’s pretty awesome.

The Brown Shirt Left

September 29, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I attended a debate last night between gubernatorial candidates Doug Ducey (R) and Fred Duval (D) on K-12 policy. Unfortunately what would have otherwise been a civil exchange of ideas between two candidates who pass the “would like to have a beer with” test was marred by protesters in the audience who attempted to hijack the event by screaming invective on entirely unrelated matters from the audience.

It seems almost unnecessary to say that the protesters were uniformly on the far left. I’m 47 years old, have seen this happen several times, and have yet to see a right of center group behave in such an anti-democratic fashion. I’m not saying it has never happened, just that I have never once seen it happen.

The person who should be most upset by this is Fred Duval. Duval is obviously a decent guy and I would put the odds that he had anything to do with this squarely at zero. Nevertheless, when a group of people shouting random hostility at his opponent act like a group of brown-shirt fascists, it’s nothing but bad. This was Duval’s best chance to make his points with the public on the subject that he has emphasized more than any other, and that chance was essentially lost. Ducey handled the situation well, receiving a thunderous round of applause in elegantly rebuking the protestors. Game, set match Ducey.

Attempting to shout down opponents is contemptible and against the most basic tenets of democracy. I would say exactly the same thing if a group of conservatives disrupted a debate by attempting to shout down the Mr. Duval.  Notice the muted reaction of the Arizona Republic. If a group of Russell Pearce supporters had shown up in force to scream at Fred Duval I hate to say that I strongly suspect that it would have been a top of the fold front page story rather than a buried note in page three. Seeing this unfold made me wonder if the era of public debates might not be drawing to a close. It is much easier to keep things under control in a studio. The only other alternative is to hire a ton of security, which raises the cost of public events considerably. Either way, we will have fewer civil and public exchanges so long as a vocal minority of Americans lack a basic commitment to civility.

If so, illiberal forces will have stolen something from us. I took my sons aged 14 and almost 13 to the debate last night, and I wonder how many more such events they will have the opportunity to attend. The soft bigotry of low expectations seems very much at work here. We’ve grown to expect some left-wing groups to behave like fascists. We should have much higher expectations.

The misguided people engaging in brown-shirt tactics should remember an old slogan of the left- the whole world is watching. You may have deluded yourself with some complex rationalization justifying attempting to shout down opponents, but don’t expect decent people of either the left or right to believe it.

Standards are Important… NOT!

September 23, 2014

My students, Charlie Belin and Brian Kisida, have a new article in the journal, Educational Policy, that examines the relationship between state science standards and science achievement according to NAEP.  As an indicator of the quality of state science standards they use Fordham’s ranking of those standards.  They find no relationship between Fordham’s ranking of standards and achievement.

Possible explanations for this result include:

1) Fordham is lousy at judging the quality of standards.

2) The quality of standards doesn’t matter.

I’m inclined toward the latter explanation, but either way, would it seem like a good idea to blow hundreds of millions, engage in endless and destructive in-fighting, and consume nearly all of the energy of the reform movement on something that makes virtually no difference?

I know, I know… the standards crowd readily admits that standards, by themselves, are not the issue.  It’s the way we link standards to teacher training, professional development, and assessments with consequences for teachers and students that really matters.  OK, so standards only matter if we also achieve a level of benevolent, top-down control over key aspects of the education system that has never been accomplished before.

Where have I heard this kind of argument before?  Oh yeah! That’s what the crazy guy in Harvard Square was yelling about when he said that the past failures of communism didn’t matter because it would finally work if we just did it correctly and completely.  And how much coercion and forced conformity would be required in the futile effort to achieve this level of top-down control?

Of course, it is also possible that Charlie and Brian’s analysis failed to capture the true causal relationship between standards and achievement given that is is only an observational study.  But if that is the case, the burden would still be on the advocates for national standards to demonstrate the causal connection between the reform they advocate and improved outcomes.  We shouldn’t remake all of American education on a hunch and a rationalization borrowed from the failure of communism.

When Will Public Schools Acquire Nukes?

September 16, 2014

The Wall Street Journal has an article that you might mistake for something in The Onion.  The federal government has a program that provides surplus military equipment to state and local governments at no cost other than the expense of shipping.  A number of public schools have taken advantage of this program to acquire military gear.  As the WSJ reported:

Some school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, stocked up on grenade launchers, M-16 rifles and even a multi-ton armored vehicle…

And Matt will be pleased to know that:

In south Texas, near the Mexican border, the sprawling Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District has 34,700 students and operates its own SWAT team, thanks in part to military gear it was given in recent years.

This is a toxic combination of 1) school districts lining up for anything the feds are handing out, 2) the excessive militarization of local police (and apparently school security) forces, and 3) schools focusing on incredibly rare events, like school shootings, as opposed to incredibly common ones, like incarcerating millions of children in schools that fail to serve their needs.

But don’t worry, one school district official explained that “These officers are trained in tactics. Some are former military.”  And a Defense Department spokesperson assured that “each state is visited biannually for a program compliance review to further look at records, property and usage.”  Well… if these are trained school employees who are inspected by the federal government biannually, I’m sure it will be fine to have SWAT teams with grenade launchers in our schools.

My only question is when will public schools be able to get surplus nukes.  I mean, how else will they maintain Mutually Assured Destruction to deter the growing threat of private school choice?

Creating Cultural Consumers

September 16, 2014

Brian Kisida, Dan Bowen, and I have a new article in the journal, Sociology of Education, about how field trips to art museums help develop cultural consumers — people who want to visit cultural institutions in the future.  This piece is a more focused and technical follow-up on the summary of our art museum field trip study last year in Education Next.  Earlier we also published a more technical piece in Educational Researcher focused on the critical thinking results from our experiment.  There are more technical pieces on particular aspects of the study in the works.

Also keep you eyes out for a random-assignment study on what students learn from field trips to see live theater performances of Hamlet and A Christmas Carol.  It should be published by Education Next some time in October.

And if you are hiring, keep your eyes out for Dan Bowen and Brian Kisida, who are both now applying for academic jobs.  They each have at least 8 peer-reviewed articles.  Dan also has two grants that he earned while working as a post-doc at Rice University.  Another one of our graduate students, Anna Egalite, is currently in a post-doc at Harvard and is also on the academic job market for next year.  All thee would be great hires for any university smart enough to snap them up.


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