Tag Archives: advertising

Brand Loyalty and Personal Identity

by Chris Metivier

This is not Christopher's haircut.

This is not Chris’ head.

I’m a traitor, a turncoat, a fence-jumper, and possibly having an identity crisis. Some of my friends feel betrayed, others feel like they’ve gained an ally, still others feel like they don’t know me anymore. I have mixed feelings of guilt, pride, defensiveness, and confusion. I don’t know if many of the people in my life will ever look at me the same way again. Certainly they won’t if they are looking at me in a recent selfie, since one of the advantages of my new life is that the front-facing camera on my new Android phone is much better than the one on my old iPhone.

I am a brand-betrayer. I’ve been “that Apple guy” for most of the last decade, an Apple evangelist even. I was an early adopter of the iPhone, and an apologist for it ever since. But no more. Now I’m an “Android phone guy”. Sure, I still use Apple computers (as well as a Windows computers, because they both have their advantages), but everyone knows that when you get a text message and pull out your handset that is simultaneously your connection to the rest of the world and a distraction from it, it’s either going to be an iPhone, or something else. People can tell a lot about you from your phone. They know how you operate, what’s important to you, what kind of person you are. They can tell whether you are a sophisticated, modern aficionado of contemporary industrial design, or a utilitarian, no-nonsense, all-business power-user.

Battle of the Brands.

Battle of the Brands.

People judge you on what kind of phone you use. I had no idea how much until I made the switch. As a member of team iPhone, I never noticed how much people believed in their iPhones. It seemed normal to me. Obviously iPhone is the superior device. I’m no fool, why would I have ever bought an inferior product? As one of these people, I had never been on the receiving end of the nose-wrinkling, smug disgust toward anything non-iPhone. Since becoming an iPhone outsider, I have been forced to wonder, have I been behaving that way all these years?

trusted-brandOf course I know, academically, that all this talk about judgment and character evaluation is superficial and not to be taken seriously. I even teach my business ethics students this very lesson. I use “consumerism” to indicate this kind of social behavior. I know “consumerism” is used lots of different ways in different contexts, but this is how I use it in that course. I’m covering that unit now, and just last week established the term. It works like this. Advertising comes in two flavors: transactional and branding. Transactional ads are ones that give you some information about some product or service. Branding ads don’t give you any information, but instead aim to change the way you feel about a brand. The danger of branding is that it asks you to identify with the values that a brand (ostensibly) represents. When lots of people internalize these brand values, they begin to understand themselves, their personal identity, through the brands that they buy. Their self-identity depends on their consumption. Hence, consumerism.

Here is an example that is both particularly easy to analyze and particularly relevant to my case.

PC -vs- Mac.

P.C. vs. Mac.

I’m sure you’ve seen one of the ads from this campaign, perhaps even a parody of it. It was, in terms of recognition, very successful. I often use it as an example in business ethics class. In it we see two characters who figuratively represent not just products, but brands. It’s important to notice that the two characters don’t represent specific products. The two options are Mac and PC. Not Mac and Windows, Mac and Dell, or something else. Apple has set up a dichotomy here between Mac and everything else. So you, the consumer, have exactly two options. Do you want to be like the hip, young, creative, relaxed, attractive Mac guy, or the stiff, nerdy, uptight, boring PC guy? The ad implies that there are “Mac people” and “PC people” and that they have personalities that can be identified by the products they use (or more importantly, buy).

apple-tat-girl-edWhen our culture becomes one (and it has) where people make purchasing decisions based not on the qualities of the products but on the whether or not they believe those products reflect the identity that they want to project, then it becomes a consumerist culture.

Let’s face it, all computers (and all smartphones) do pretty much the same stuff. When we decide which one to buy, it’s rarely based on the properties of the device itself. They just aren’t very different. Sure, you might be used to doing things one way or another, and it would be inconvenient to have to learn new methods for getting things done (another strategy companies use to create an artificial barrier to switching once you’re in), but certainly you don’t think so little of yourself that you believe you couldn’t learn. When you decide to buy a Mac instead of a PC, Apple hopes that it’s at least in part because you think of yourself as the kind of person who uses a Mac. That’s where brand loyalty comes from.

Coke or Pepsi?

Coke or Pepsi?

Sure you might come to believe that the product you chose is objectively superior, or that it will provide tangible benefits to you over the alternative. But those are ad hoc justifications for a decision you made based on how you felt about the product and what kind of person you want to be. Cognitive psychologists call it “confirmation bias” when we cherry-pick evidence to support the position that we’ve already adopted. As consumers, we don’t want to feel foolish for having bought an inferior product (I’m going to stick with the example of computers or smartphones), so we insist that our choice was the best in the face of criticism from those who happen to have bought a competing product for the same feelingsy reasons. And because none of us want to admit (or are maybe not even aware of) our underlying motivations, we get into esoteric fights about megapixels and gigahertz, or when these measurements are not on our side, we can use more abstract metrics like “user experience” or “software ecosystems.”

…which is a croc.

…which is a croc.

I’ve taught this lesson for years, and it never occurred to me until now that I was as guilty as anyone else. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and turn in my iPhone, to abandon the comfortable hegemony of Apple’s walled garden for the untamed, shifting Otherness of Google’s Android platform. I admit, I had a period of homesickness when I discovered that some of the conveniences I had enjoyed would take some work to reestablish.

"I've made a huge mistake."

“I’ve made a huge mistake.”

But on the whole, as I should have expected, my life has continued largely unchanged. I don’t regret my decision. And as I write this, it occurs to me that this shouldn’t even be a big deal. It wouldn’t be if consumerism wasn’t such a strong force, both internally and externally, in my life.

So I guess that’s the lesson, which I’m still learning. Consumerism is ubiquitous, insidious, and powerful. I’ve resisted the desire to detail the arguments I’ve heard in just the last few days for why my decision to change camps was either foolish or inspired, and to analyze all the ways in which these arguments are misguided, selfishly motivated, or just mean. I know my decision was neither a blunder nor an epiphany. It was an experiment. And it’s value in self-reflection alone was worth the price.

Brand-logo alphabet. How many do you recognize?

Brand-logo alphabet. How many do you recognize?

Baby’s Hungry: A Daddy’s Perspective on Nursing (and Nursing in Public)

by Jay Parr

A quiet moment in the country.

That special bond between a mother and her child.

I was about twelve, riding the DC Metrobus home from school, when a woman started complaining loudly about another woman breastfeeding her baby on the bus. I didn’t see anything, so I don’t know if the nursing mother was covered up or not, but that’s irrelevant here. The complaining woman made her way up to the driver, a taciturn and tough-looking man who looked like he would as soon cut your throat as say hello (I remember him because he drove that route often). He focused on the afternoon traffic as the woman complained, until he came to a light and she demanded, “Well? Aren’t you going to do something?”

The driver looked out at the cross traffic for a moment, absently drumming his fingers on the fare box, then turned to the woman and shrugged.

“Baby’s hungry.”

BLS 348: Representing Women

BLS 348: Representing Women

I can’t say for certain that the woman immediately stopped complaining, either to the driver or to the other passengers around her, but I do remember that as far as the driver was concerned, the conversation was over.

Baby’s hungry. So feed the baby. ‘Cuz if baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Until thirty years later when I became a father, I never thought much about breastfeeding. I knew some people did it and some people didn’t. I knew medical opinion was evolving back in the pro-breastfeeding direction—the implicit concession being that millennia of natural selection just might trump a few decades of medical inquiry. I knew I was more likely to see women breastfeeding their children when the acoustic band I worked sound for played at places like hippie music festivals and communal farms, and I found it vaguely amusing that the medical establishment and the crunchy-living community seemed to be on the same page about something for once. That was about as far as it went.

Then we had a baby, and everything changed.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Common words like “latch” and “letdown” suddenly took on new and highly-specialized meanings. The entire household became centered around the mother-baby nursing nest. I learned that breastfeeding, while clearly the most natural process, was not without its setbacks and complications (and blood and tears). I learned about the important contributions of lactation consultants. I learned that some people who aren’t breastfeeding would much rather be breastfeeding, but can’t for some reason or other. I learned about breast-milk-sharing networks, and the amazingly selfless mothers who contribute to them. And much to my dismay I learned that breastfeeding—especially breastfeeding in public—is an absurdly controversial topic in this country.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

But let’s back up a little. The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and well-documented. For example, the nursing mother’s immune system works in tandem with her child’s, detecting pathogens to which the child has been exposed and producing antibodies that are passed through breast milk (if you’ve ever wondered why mothers have a strange compulsion to kiss their newborns’ hands, one theory is that it’s related to this immune support). Nursing produces hormones that encourage bonding, relaxation and a sense of well-being for both mother and child. Night milk contains tryptophan, that legendary compound that makes you so sleepy after feasting on your Thanksgiving turkey. The composition of a mother’s milk changes over time as the baby matures, to meet the baby’s changing nutritional needs. The mother’s diet affects the flavor of her milk from day to day, and children who have been exposed to that variety of flavors  at the breast tend to be much less finicky about new foods than children who have been raised on a single flavor of formula. Even among toddlers who are eating mostly solids, mothers’ milk provides a high-quality nutritional supplement, and continues to bolster the child’s still-maturing immune system—all the way up to school age. The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. And where the medical establishment swayed toward formula in the mid-20th century, that opinion has swung strongly back in favor of nursing in recent decades, despite the best efforts of a well-funded formula industry to keep its foot in the door.

Still, even with all that backup from the scientific and medical communities, and even with prevailing attitudes renormalizing breastfeeding—even with laws from both liberal and conservative state governments protecting a mother’s right to nurse wherever she and her child are both allowed to be—we as a culture just can’t help but be a little squeamish about the whole topic.

There seem to be two main points of debate about breastfeeding in this country: 1) How public is “too public,” and 2) how old is “too old.”

How public is too public? According to the North Carolina statute addressing indecent exposure, there is no such thing: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding” (§14-190.9).

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

Does that mean a business owner or manager can’t ask a nursing mother to leave the establishment under the state’s trespassing laws? As far as I know, that part remains unclear. And of course, the laws vary widely from state to state.

Just last week a woman in Austin asked to use a fitting room at a Victoria’s Secret to nurse her child (you know, so she could nurse discreetly without flashing her breast all over, of all places, Victoria’s Secret), and was told no, thanks for your purchase and all, but go use the alley instead. She went to the news, and the story went viral, and Victoria’s Secret issued a statement distancing itself from the actions of its employee, but the fact remains that the business may have the legal right to deny anyone (even a customer who just made a $150 purchase) the use of a fitting room for any purpose other than to try on merchandise. She may have been more legally within her rights to sit down right out in front of the store and oh-so-shamelessly whip out some boob right there under the Texas sun, like a good in-your-face lactivist. Because we all know every nursing mother is really just looking for some public humiliation and controversy, right?

David Horsey / LA Times, 12 July 2012

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2012.

To look at the comments in the media, especially social media, public opinion seems to be that anything a nursing mother does (short of, perhaps, staying at home) is wrong. The mother who asked to use a dressing room was asking a private business to risk losing sales (you know, if all the other dressing rooms filled up and someone got really impatient). The mother sitting outside the store should have sought a more private space, like maybe a dressing room. The mother with her baby under a nursing blanket should have gone out to her car. The mother nursing in her car should have gone inside to a bathroom (would you eat your lunch in a public bathroom?). The mother in the restaurant should have—oh I don’t know, something. Just gone home, maybe? And we haven’t even gotten to the mother whose baby won’t tolerate being covered up, or the one who’s struggling with latch issues or has some other reason she needs to constantly watch and adjust the nursing baby.

The public’s uninhibited judgment of parents in general is pretty harsh, but the public’s judgment of nursing mothers is amazing. Check out any article about someone encountering trouble for nursing in public, and you’ll find all kinds of enlightened comments from the hoi-polloi. Anyone who’s not going about it exactly as the commenter would do it is some kind of radical or attention-monger (to use a polite euphemism), trying to cram her breast down the public’s throats. You’ll see breastfeeding equated to public masturbation, public fellatio, and even public defecation. Excuse me? Feeding the baby is a sex act? Sodomy, even? Nursing a hungry baby is equivalent to dropping a deuce in public? Now you just sound like someone who has never actually had to change a crappy diaper in a public place. It’s a hoot, let me tell you.

This commercial takes on the issue with just the right touch of humor:

Baby Mama has referred to herself as an “accidental lactivist.” Baby Girl would never tolerate nursing under a cover. Her latch was horrible early on (and has always been tentative), needing a lot of revision and pop-off re-latching. Oh, and we’re in no rush to wean, so she’s still nursing at eighteen months. Which brings us to the second major point of debate.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

How old is too old? We in the United States are in an awfully big hurry to wean, and despite the fact that most of the developing world (and much of the developed world) recognizes the benefits of extended breastfeeding, we seem to view anyone who nurses beyond a year as some kind of radical. Baby Girl’s favorite toddler-class teacher recently asked Baby Mama not to nurse her in the classroom at pick-up time anymore. She justified the request with an insinuation that new dads coming in to pick up their children might be somehow “offended,” but we can’t help but wonder if it’s really driven by an opinion that at eighteen months, she shouldn’t be nursing any longer. Especially among our parents’ generation, there seems to be an opinion that if the child is still nursing at her first birthday, it’s time to cut her off (which is one lousy birthday present, if you ask me). Others will say that if she’s old enough to ask for it, she’s old enough to wean. We’re more of the opinion (as is much of the world, I think) that if it’s not working for both mother and child, well then it’s just not working, but as long as it’s still working for both, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know?

We’re not alone in that opinion. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding alongside appropriate solid foods “up to two years of age or beyond” (WHO). Here in the States, there’s something of a movement afoot toward extended breastfeeding, going hand-in-hand with the movement toward what has been dubbed “attachment parenting.” In a nutshell, attachment parenting is built around the notion that humans are naturally an offspring-carrying species (à la higher primates), not a nesting species like dogs or cats or birds. As such, the argument goes, we are more within our natural element carrying our babies, or wearing them, or co-sleeping with them at night, than we are to plop them in a stroller or a bouncy seat or a playpen or a crib (as were most of us as children). Far from spoiling the child (as the old-schoolers would say we were doing), the theory is that keeping our children physically close to us—carrying them on our chests or backs when we’re out and about, engaging them with direct attention, allowing them to sleep close to us or even with us—helps the child grow into a secure, empathetic, and nurturing adult.

Attachment parenting has something of a guru in a fellow named Dr. Sears (actually the elder of several Dr. Searses), who may in fact have even coined the term. I’m not much of a joiner, and Baby Mama will attest that I’m horrible about doing my parenting homework, so I’m not really an expert on the Doctors Sears or the current theory and research around attachment parenting. I only know that the general precepts make sense to me. Children are hardwired to bond with their core caregivers (parents, et al.), and to be more secure around them than around relative strangers such as rotating day-care providers. To get all Darwinian, it’s reproductively advantageous for children to hew toward the adults who are most driven to look out for their safety and welfare. It just makes sense.

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

To judge by the subtitle on this Time cover, attachment parenting is not without its detractors. Nor is extended breastfeeding. And of course, there are going to be extremists on both sides of any argument, because the world is full of nutjobs. We could talk about how part of the problem is our culture’s hypersexualization of the breast—our hypersexualization of any kind of nudity or intimate physical contact, really—and how that creates a cycle of shame and repression. We could talk about the role of patriarchal traditions and systemic misogyny (‘cuz let’s face it, fellas; those yummies aren’t there for us). We could talk about how all this is compounded by our country’s pitiful maternity leave policies, and the ways in which we make work and parenting mutually incompatible. But I’m running way too long already, and I’m bucking my deadline, so all that will just have to wait for another time.

So how public is too public? If you ask me, there is no such thing. Riding a bus, sitting in a restaurant, in uniform, in Parliament, in front of the Pope—you name it. A nursing baby is so much more pleasant than a cranky, hungry baby. Don’t want to see it? That’s simple: Don’t look.

And how old is too old? As far as I’m concerned, as long as breastfeeding is still working for both mother and child, no one else really has much right to chime in. If you’re not the mother, it’s not your body and it’s not your child, so it’s not your business.

BLS 385: American Motherhood

BLS 385: American Motherhood

In short, as the partner of a nursing mother and the father of a happy and healthy breastfed toddler, I believe that no mother should ever be made to feel that she has somehow transgressed public decency simply by feeding her infant or soothing her child. It’s not an act of rebellion. It’s not an attention-seeking spectacle. In fact, it’s not about you at all. It’s an act of love between a mother and her child. Baby’s hungry.

Why Venus Can’t Find a Modeling Gig

by Jay Parr

We have a print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging on our wall at home, and lately it occurs to me that if Botticelli’s Venus were looking for work as a model today, she would never find a job.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

I should clarify my credentials here by saying that I am neither a gender-studies scholar nor an art historian. On the gender-studies front, I’m basically just an all-around egalitarian … just feminist enough to recognize my own male-gaze tendencies. On the art-studies front, I did minor in visual art as an undergrad, but my concentration was in photography. I do also have a Master of Fine Arts, but the “art” in question there is putting lies on paper … um … fiction.

Oh, and I have no credentials in the fashion world, either. Beyond, that is, being subjected to its daily assaults along with the rest of us.

Rihanna looks like this?

Rihanna’s everyday look. No, really.

But compare that canonical painting to the images of women that bombard us from all directions today, and you will plainly see that this goddess–the very quintessence of feminine beauty in 1486 when she was painted–need only go through a supermarket checkout to learn just how desperately lacking she is in “feminine allure” today. The cover of any Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, or any of the other myriad fashion/celebrity-gossip/consumerist-culture magazines will inform her, without a single word and without a hint of a doubt, that she stands no chance of competing with the professionally made-up, professionally lit, professionally photographed, and professionally photoshopped images of feminine beauty that set the standard today.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Just go do an image search on the word “beauty,” and guess what you’ll find. Screen after screen after screen of women’s faces, all obviously (and heavily) coated in cosmetics, professionally coiffed, professionally photographed, and then photoshopped to the point that they bear little if any resemblance to what was actually in front of the camera lens. When I did that search while working on this post, one relatively natural-looking face jumped out at me. So I followed the link to discover that no, she was actually pretty heavily made up, with perfectly plucked eyebrows and perfectly mascaraed lashes and perfectly subtle “natural” makeup, and the hair that was out of place was, in fact, that way by design. Even better, the image was an ad for a full-service spa-salon offering such treatments as laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, skin peels, spray tanning, eyelash perming, and lash extensions. No, really. Eyelash perming. Lash Extensions.

Because that’s what women look like, right? They have thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes and translucent, perfectly-toned skin and plump, moist lips and delicate little noses and big, round eyes and tiny waists and full bosoms that utterly defy gravity.

What I look like when I wake up.

What I look like when I wake up.

Even the hippie-living magazine that somehow found its way into our house is guilty. What’s the biggest headline? SEXY SKIN! What’s the standard set by the cover? A healthy and unusually attractive young woman peering over her naked, smooth-skinned shoulder, with straight white teeth peeking through her smile, subtle “natural” lip color, “natural” makeup on her sun-kissed and lightly freckled cheeks, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and what would not be too much of a stretch to describe as something of a come-hither look in her eyes. Oh, and what was that about the out-of-place hair being that way by design? Yeah.

Birth of Venus detail

Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

And that is why Botticelli’s Venus cannot find a job. I mean, just look at her. Her brows are okay, I suppose, but her eyelashes are too anemic, and her skin is too motley, and her nose is too crude and lumpy, and her mouth is too small and her lips are too blurry, and her chin is too big, and her jaw is too heavy, and her hair is all split ends and tangles (but not wild enough to be interesting), and with her brownish auburn hair and medium-brown eyes and dun skin-tone, she’s all one washed-out color. No punch. No pizazz. No waifish, delicate, might-be-dead-tomorrow magnetism here. No sir.

And that’s just her face. Look at her figure through the eyes of the porn fashion industry and you’ll see that her belly’s too soft and her waist is too thick and her breasts are both too small and too low, and her shoulders are too sloped, and her arms are too thick, and her hips are too square, and she could use a manicure.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

I mean, she doesn’t look at all like Keira Knightley on this cover of Allure, so heavily made up and post-processed that the closer you look the more she looks like a video-game avatar. Ms. Knightley doesn’t even look plastic here. Because she doesn’t even look that realistic. She looks like pure CGI. Oh, and what’s with the open fly and the sequined bolero jacket with nothing in between? Correction, nothing but body makeup and post-processing. Is this the new fashion? ‘Cuz I work on a campus with a lot of young women on it, and I ain’t seen no one walking around dressed quite like that.

I’m reminded of the first viral video of that Dove “real beauty” campaign, which, despite getting some harsh criticism from pretty much every direction, actually did a little bit to maybe get people thinking about just how realistic the images in that supermarket checkout (or on that billboard) really aren’t. At least for a moment.

Is it any wonder we have a distorted standard of feminine beauty in our culture? When the high-fashion publications and high-fashion advertising bombard us with images that are more fiction than fact? When even the “real” images are so idealized? When Venus herself looks frumpy and plain?

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Not that men in the public eye are entirely exempt from unrealistic standards of (and undue emphasis on) physical beauty. It’s certainly to a lesser extent, and less all-consuming, but I have a feeling that no one who looks like Abraham Lincoln would stand  much of a chance of being elected president these days. The fashion industry does have its unrealistic images of masculine beauty, of course. Open any high-fashion magazine and you’re going to see the images of the guys with their waxed chests and shaped eyebrows and flawless skin, because the ideal for either gender is a post-pubescent physique, minus the hormone-ravaged skin, with prepubescent hair growth (i.e., none to speak of). And the cosmetics industry does keep making attempts to get its toe in the door of the male market, with some success (skin care, shaving accoutrements, deodorants, gray-hair color and the like), but not nearly to the extent that it dominates the female market. A guy who’s out on the weekend unshaven in rumpled clothes and bed head is still just being a guy on the weekend. A girl who does the same thing is being unkempt and needs to clean up her act. No double standard there at all.

Thinking about this issue makes me miss that little Quaker college six miles west of here where I finished my bachelor’s degree. The traditional college years are an age when a lot of people experiment with nonconformity anyway, so combine that with an institution that was founded by nonconformists and actively encourages individuality and nonconformity in its students? It’s a thing of beauty, let me tell you. You’re more likely to find a copy of Adbusters lying around than a copy of Vogue. Attractive young women eschewed cosmetics, cut their hair into wake-and-go hairstyles, grew out their armpits, unibrows, mustaches, and leg hair, dressed in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes, and headed out to class. Or to question authority. Or both.

I dug around for a while trying to find a picture from those days, but the closest I could come was this image of English-German author Charlotte Roche looking like she could have been one of my classmates there.

Charlotte Roche

Charlotte Roche

Around that time there was a billboard in town for a laser hair-removal “clinic” with a heavily-retouched photo of a hairless young woman in a postage stamp of a bikini, smooth pits open to the camera, with the legend, “You didn’t shave. You didn’t have to.” I wanted to make a spoof of that ad, same image same pose, same bikini, same legend, only with one of my classmates who was just as fit as the model in the original, except, and this is the important part, spectacularly furry.

But we’re all brainwashed. We’re so saturated with the industry’s definitions of beauty that our capacity for critical thinking just doesn’t even bother to kick in, because we see no reason to question it. I don’t think I realized quite how bad it was until just now, when I was doing the search that led to the Charlotte Roche image. Almost everything I found on the internet was ridiculing those women. Because clearly any woman would have to be a bit crazy to admit she had hair in her armpits. Or on her legs. Or in her pants. Or that she had a little bit of fat protecting her abdomen. Or that her breasts were lower than her pectoral muscles.

And that, my friends, is why Botticelli’s Venus can’t find a modeling gig.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus,

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Cabanel’s Venus, on the other hand, might manage to find work, at least as a plus-size model. I mean, she does kinda look a little like Christina Hendricks.

Actually, We Can All Just Get Along…And Do Most Of the Time.

by Wade Maki

Who’s out to destroy America? If you believed everything you hear over the next few weeks the answer is just about everyone. Greedy capitalists, lazy moochers, and every candidate running in a competitive race are just some of dangers. Of course if you watch the news you’d also conclude that we’re all about to die from the weather (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, snow oh my), can’t swim in the oceans (sharks), can’t fly (crashes), and we will be the victims of terrorism, swine flu, computer hacking, identity theft, or sudden onset obesity any minute now.

Similar to how the news exaggerates the risks of daily living, campaigns exaggerate the evil intent of every “other” in society. Luckily, when disasters really do occur most of us get along pretty well (and days without disasters too).

Image

Are the presidential candidates really villains from Batman?

Our predisposition towards cooperation became especially clear to me this summer during a trip to visit family in the hills of northwest Arkansas. On the surface this is a unique region, as you learn when flying into what appears to be nowhere. You land at a very large and modern airport (thanks to Wal-Mart headquarters being in the area). The many small communities contain people from all over the country—most notably retirees seeking warm weather, affordable living, low taxes and a large supply of golf courses.

We stayed with relatives up winding roads in the hills filled with middle class houses and large trees. During the second night of our stay we experienced a very fast and violent storm. The power went out after dark and we experienced the “what do we do without electricity” quandary faced by those too used to technology. Luckily, I had an iPad to light the way until we found a flashlight and got candles lit. As there wasn’t much to do, we grabbed a flashlight took a midnight stroll to see what had happened.

Quickly we realized that this was not a unique idea as there were people roaming all over the neighborhood (in the dark the bouncing flashlights were visible for blocks). Trees were down everywhere. Not just small Imageones but massive trees lay across yards, power lines, and on top of homes as well. It was bad and everyone was making sure everyone else was okay. We hadn’t made it a block before running into a man with a flashlight strapped atop his head by his shirt and his long wet hair hanging down his bare shoulders looking for the chainsaw he had set down along the street. This was the first, but not last person, who in the middle of the night was already getting to work helping neighbors get massive trees removed from damaged homes.

All night and most of the next day we heard the roar of chainsaws as the cleanup continued. People from outside the neighborhood were driving around offering their services to those needing tree removals (some were professionals, others just a guy with a saw trying to make a buck). It is at a time like this you realize that the “greedy capitalist” you hear during campaign season is a good thing to have around when an 8’ wide oak tree is crushing your roof.

For most of the next day power was out (the company workers were doing their best) as a mixture of Imagevolunteers and for profit professionals assisted those in need. One elderly couple had a very large tree crash right into their bedroom. Luckily they weren’t home. Rather than wait to contact them, or wait for an insurance assessor, that same mix of neighbors and professionals got together, removed the tree from the house and put a tarp on the roof to protect this couples’ home from further rain.

There were no bad guys that day. Despite the different political yard signs around, no one viewed anyone else as out to destroy America. When something really bad happened it was amazing how everyone (volunteers, for profit professional, neighbors, etc.) just did what needed doing. As a microcosm of society it is a good reminder of just how well most things work (which is the real magic given how many things could go wrong).Image

Sure there are problems, differences, and our decisions about what policy or person to support can make things better or worse. For the most part though, society is full of pretty good people trying their best, in their own way, to get what needs doing done. Something to remember as you experience the drumbeat of doom from political ads and “news” outlets—We can and do get along just fine…most of the time.

Who is on First: Ambiguous and Loaded Language

By Wade Maki

“Who is on first? Yes, he is.” The classic comedy bit plays on ambiguity in language.  In this case the ambiguity is just the unfortunate result of the situation (people named “Who” and “What” are difficult to talk about).  A great many problems are caused by ambiguous language in which two or more meanings may be found in the same wording. Vast amounts of philosophical disputes revolve around language disputes. What exactly did you mean by X?

Do you believe in God? This seems a simple question, but what does it mean to “believe” in something? Does belief entail: that it is true, that it is likely true, that it is possibly true, that I just hope it true, or even that I just want to be true? The word is unclear and any question involving it invites answers aimed at one of these standards leaving great possibility for confusion between questioner and answerer.

Sometimes ambiguous language is just the unintended result of vague expression. In other cases it results from careless expression. As evidence, here is how a team of students recently reported on a conflict between two companies:

“Throughout the process, this firm created monetary problems for their company explaining why they decided not to provide their services to them.”

While the team knew to what the words “this, their, they, and them,” applied, there was no way for the reader to decipher this meaning given that there were at least two subjects that each word could refer to.

In other cases ambiguous language is a deliberate tool to deceive. Examples from politics and advertising are numerous where, by design, language is selected because it has dual meanings one, which is technically true, and the other which isn’t true but the speaker hopes the listener will accept as true. President Clinton’s famous legal defense about perjury included the curious claim “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”. You know language is in trouble when “is” becomes ambiguous.

Rather than focus on political ambiguity in language, a subject deserving of its own post, consider how advertisers utilize it. Below are two labels from the same product line called “ecosense” (in two shades of green). When you see this what do you think of? Once you’ve answered the question read the small print at the bottom. Then look at the second version, which represents the updated advertising language. Notice how they changed the small print to be even more ambiguous than the first.

What is going on with these ads is called “greenwashing” whereby an attempt is made to convey an environmental product when, in fact, it is not an environmental product. In the examples above the advertiser plays on both the ambiguity of the phrase “ecosense” and of the color green. The eco in ecosense could mean ecological and/or economical just as the green could mean environmentally friendly and/or affordable. As the small print indicates in the first ad (which was the original label) only the economical portions are true.  However, since the product would sell better if people thought it was environmental this original small print was altered to be more ambiguous. Now it tells you that ecosense means economical sense it leaves an open question as to the environmental impact of the product. People who don’t read the small print (a significant number) would reasonably conclude that the product was environmentally friendly and even those who read the second label may reach that same conclusion.

Thus far the examples have involved language which could have two or more meanings. There is another form of ambiguity in language where meanings are smuggled into language without actually being said.  What comes to mind when I tell you Jones is an environmentalist? For many people the word itself brings with it images of hippies, tree huggers, people diving atop whales to save them from harpoons, Prius owners, or a host of other behaviors. As a result a lot of people say “I’m not an environmentalist” before adding, “but I care about the environment.” This is as logical as the woman who says: “I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist.”

Confusions in such cases come not from the words themselves, but from outside ideas the listener associates with the words. Thus, most conservatives don’t call themselves “environmentalists” as that says SUV burning, un-showered,  neo-hippie. Instead, conservatives are more likely to use the term “conservationist”.  What is the difference? Not a whole lot if you only look at the words and know that both seek to protect parks, air, water, and nature.  Of course the term conservationist also carries additional connotations to some listeners such as, in full Teddy Roosevelt tradition, enjoying nature by using an elephant gun to blow away every creature in the natural world for the trophy wall.

A lot of conflict, confusion, and deception occurs because of ambiguity in either the meaning of language or the smuggling in of additional notions. What one person says can be innocent to one listener but racist/homophobic/offensive to others. The solution isn’t easy. Being aware of ambiguity and smuggled notions goes a long way, but not far enough. If you were running for president and want to protect parks, air, water, and nature what word do you use? If environmentalist and conservationist each scare a third of America what word do you use? This helps explain the tortured use of language in politics.

Thinking, Adapting, and Thinking

By Marc Williams

Eric Ries

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, has some bold ideas about entrepreneurship.  In a recent interview for Wired magazine online, Ries argues that old adage “right place at the right time” is not a formula for business success:

 “There was a study done in the early 20th century of all the entrepreneurs who entered the automobile industry around the same time as Henry Ford; there were something like 500 automotive companies that got funded, had the internal combustion engine, had the technology, and had the vision. Sixty percent of them folded within a couple of years.”

Ford, according to Ries, was simply better at adapting to changing circumstances than his competitors.  It wasn’t the quality of his original idea, which wasn’t at all unique, but rather his willingness to change his idea.

A contemporary example Ries uses is Dropbox, a file-sharing program that allows uses to sync files and folders online—and allows users to designate folders as public, private, or shared with only selected users.  Dropbox didn’t begin with a massive PR campaign—it started small, adapted to what its small customer base wanted, and experienced overwhelming growth because they continued to adapt.

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So what can teachers do to help prepare students for a world in which adaptability is key?  In my online courses in the BLS program at UNCG, I typically utilize at least one assignment that requires revision.  Sometimes it is easy to focus on obvious errors—mechanics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, et cetera.  When reading student writing, I challenge myself to look for the ideas and challenge my students to strengthen, support, or even reconsider those ideas.    In what other ways can teachers promote adaptability in the classroom?

Maybe Almost Probably the End of Harry Potter (perhaps)

By Marc Williams

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

The eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter film series is to be released this week, one of the most eagerly anticipated films in years.  It has generated excitement reminiscent of the release of the second generation of Star Wars films.  Indeed, tickets for Friday’s opening began selling out in the U.S. several days ago–a week ahead of the July 15 premiere–making it one of the fastest-selling films ever.

The opening is bittersweet for many fans who would like to see the series continue and at the July 7 London premiere of the final film, author J.K. Rowling left open the possibility of future Potter stories. While her statement doesn’t indicate that more stories are imminent, the possibility is tantalizing for fans.

In the meantime, serious fans await Rowling’s online venture, Pottermore, which won’t be fully available to the public until October but promises some new Potter content that has not been previously available.

Here’s J.K. Rowling on Pottermore:

Fans can also visit Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a very impressive theme park treatment of Rowling’s vision that allows fans to immerse themselves in the world of Potter.