Category Archives: Media

People are Bad

I was flossing my teeth at the balcony window the other night, taking in the view over the city, and I noticed someone trying to aim a projector at the big blank wall of an apartment building across the way. Since the projector was off to the side, this involved zooming and shifting the image in several axes and the individual at the helm was obvious having some difficulty. In any case, when it settled down enough so I could read it, I was a little dismayed to find that what was being projected was an ad for something called “People for Good,” and it featured a giant ScanLife barcode that people could use to download the People for Good app onto their iPhones. I was dismayed because I don’t like having giant, luminescent, animated billboards right across from my balcony, and I know, based on the opposition to the giant, luminescent, animated billboard next to the Burrard Bridge, that I’m not alone in feeling this way. So I hatched a plan to skewer People for Good in a scathing blog post, which wouldn’t have any effect on the persistence of that billboard, but which would certainly make me feel a lot better.

As it turns out, People for Good is a national campaign with the goal of “making the world a better place” by encouraging people to do good deeds for one another. As their manifesto notes, “It may sound ambitious but it’s easier than you’d think. In fact, you could help make the world a better place right now. Just by doing something nice for someone.” Their website implores visitors to “join the movement” and “pledge their support” by installing a Facebook application or by downloading the free People for Good iPhone app, both of which give you a list of suggestions for good deeds that you can do each day – offer to give someone directions, for example, or shovel the snow off someone’s walkway, or send someone a handwritten note instead of an email. It is the claim of People for Good that “when you do something nice for someone, it gives you a natural high that can last for weeks, even months”; and presumably, people doing good deeds for one another will create a cascading effect that will eventually engulf the world in happiness and good cheer.

Whoever wrote the web copy anticipated some scepticism: “Rest assured,” they say, “we’re not asking for money, we just want you to donate a little generosity.” Needless to say, I was not resting assured. This campaign, which involves billboards and subway ads and newspaper ads in major cities across Canada, obviously cost a lot of money to produce, and I was a little suspicious that someone would invest so much money in something without expecting a return. My scepticism was fuelled by the overall superficiality and banality of the campaign. There’s little else on the website or the apps apart from those suggested good deeds, and after reading the examples I gave above you could probably come up with another fifty off the top of your head while playing with a Rubik’s cube. Eleven out of twelve people gave the iPhone app a five-star rating, and at least two of these eleven people work for Thinkingbox, the company that designed the app; presumably the others, who showered the app in effusive praise, are their friends and family members. The one person who offered a two-star rating wrote what everyone else must be thinking: “I love to do nice things for people but I was disappointed by the lack of original and new ideas.” What’s more, an individual who goes by the sobriquet “fartamplifier” pointed out on the People for Good Youtube page that “ doesn’t function properly in IE9 (even with compatibility mode turned on) and FF5. It locks up both browsers and the site is displayed incorrectly.” In short, the app is stupid and the website is boring.

My question must be fairly obvious by this point: if these guys had a million bucks to spend on making the world a better place, why did they choose to spend it on something so inane and unsubstantial? People for Good was started by Mark Sherman, founder and executive chairman of a company called Media Experts, and Zak Mroueh, the head of a branding company called, modestly, Zulu Alpha Kilo. In a July 11 press release, Mr. Sherman characterizes the campaign as a feel-good bit of philanthropy:

When something is not right, we tend to rely on someone else-our neighbour, our boss or our government-to fix it. But the truth is, anyone can help change the world. Companies can harness the power of their collective to heal and improve our society. We took stock of what we could do as two business owners.

Mr. Mroueh has a similar outlook:

Small good deeds – even as basic as genuinely saying “thank you” to someone who helped you, smiling at a stranger or helping out a co-worker – make a big difference in creating social capital, the glue that holds us together as a community.

He acknowledges that the campaign is intrusive, but the intrusion is justified, he argues, because it intrudes “with a different kind of message.” But is the message really as different as he claims?

In answering this question, it’s helpful to look at another similarly unusual project that was carried out by Mr. Mroueh’s company, Zulu Alpha Kilo. In October 2008, a team of “interdisciplinary thinkers” from Zulu Alpha Kilo built a white box in the middle of Dundas Square in Toronto and offered to give passers-by creative solutions to any questions they might have, like “how can we raise $20,000 to help teach students to invest?” or “how can we put an end to road rage?” or “how can I dress up my wheelchair to look like a rollercoaster?” They called it “thinking inside the box.” After twenty minutes of deliberation on each question the team would present their solutions and then move on to the next question, and they repeated this process for nine hours while the video billboards around the square broadcast the proceedings. The similarities between this project and the People for Good project are quite plain: both have no apparent product that’s being marketed, both involve unusual ways of interacting with the public, both involve a considerable investment, and both offer a vague proclamation about how the project is doing good (in the case of the Think project, it was giving people a “new appreciation for creativity”).

The product being sold in both of these cases is obscured by the digressive rhetoric surrounding it. What we’re seeing here is advertising trying to become indistinguishable from its medium. We’re aware of how product placement incorporated advertising directly into the content of TV shows, but taking that idea to its logical conclusion would involve making the TV shows themselves into advertisements; if the TV show itself is an advertisement, people might not notice that that’s the case, and they might be less averse to the intrusion of the ad into their life. I’m obviously not privy to the conversations that happen in the boardroom of Zulu Alpha Kilo and other advertising agencies, but I imagine there’s some awareness that people generally dislike and / or ignore billboards and TV ads, so the future profitability of the ad business has to involve drawing a façade over the face of the ad to make it less identifiable as such.

The copy on Mr. Sherman’s Media Experts website reflects this strategy using different words. “The business of media,” it states, “is about engagement, not just exposures; it’s about getting into consumers heads and hearts, not just about counting them.” They quote the ancient Greek writer Aesop as saying “appearances often are deceiving,” and they cite this as thinking that “resonates with [their] own.” This is the kind of thinking, apparently, that underlies Media Experts’ presentations about “digital solutions 2.0,” with titles like “Data Driven Digital Marketing,” “Mobile Marketing Revealed,” and “Social Media’s Impact on your Company’s Brand.” There was no billboard in Dundas square that said “hire Zak Mroueh,” but by putting that box into the square and allegedly getting it into newspapers across the country – into the content of the papers, not the ads – Mr. Mroueh loaded his sleeve with a big ace for next time he’s in a sales meeting with a company who’s looking to refresh its brand strategy. If he can do this for his own company, what can he do for you?

Blurring the lines between advertising and non-advertising is a valuable tool because it can make advertising seem so benevolent. The People for Good campaign is ostensibly philanthropic, if you don’t look too closely – it really does appear to be about nothing more than spreading good cheer and making people connect with one another, and indeed, there’s nothing on the ads themselves, the website, or the Facebook or iPhone apps that would suggest otherwise. And there’s no evidence incriminating enough to make Mr. Mroueh concede, if asked, that yes, this actually was a form of marketing for his and Mr. Sherman’s companies. It’s all circumstantial. People complain about advertising being misleading, but this is advertising that’s misleading in it’s very form; it makes it difficult for people to tell if they’re reading the news or being targeted by advertisers, if they’re talking to their friends or being targeted by advertisers, if they’re looking at art or looking at marketing, and this is undermines the whole concept of an informed consumer. Advertising that intrudes on our friendships and our public spaces without announcing itself as advertising is intrusive to a degree that makes old-fashioned TV ads and billboards seem totally innocuous by comparison. This is especially concerning in light of the growing scope of corporate control over politics and government. In the United States last year, for instance, Google and Verizon got together to draft a policy proposal regarding net neutrality, and they left it full of loopholes that would very clearly give them control of content provided through mobile devices – the most rapidly growing sector of data traffic. And the FCC engaged them in talks! Control over web content in the hands of behemoth corporations, coupled with advertising that you can’t tell is advertising (made by people who are  “in the business of changing attitudes and behaviour”), is a prospect that motivates me to move to the backwoods of the Yukon to live in a cabin.

Joke about tinfoil hats if you want, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think about how our current trends might manifest a few years into the future – in fact, I think it’s necessary. I’m a university-educated adult with a strong background in thinking critically, but even I was naïve enough to expect a product being sold in black and white when I got to the People for Good website, and I was frustrated how my research into the project wasn’t turning up any obvious culprits. People less cynical than myself probably wouldn’t think to try and identify a product in this campaign. As long as advertising like this is so banal that it doesn’t make people think twice, then mission accomplished.

Updated July 24.


The National Post on women’s studies

About a week ago the National Post published an article about how many women’s studies programs in Canada are changing their names, and then followed it up with an editorial claiming that a “goodbye and good riddance” to women’s studies would be, regrettably, premature. The original article includes this gem:

Even the punctuation has deeper meaning: “The apostrophe can imply that the discipline belongs to women rather than has women as its object of study,” says Simon Fraser University’s recent proposal to change the name. “The program at SFSU chose to identify women as our object of study, not as the owners of the field.”

I call this quote a gem because it demonstrates the painfully deficient level of journalism that fills the pages of the Post. They attribute this statement about the punctuation to SFU, even though the statement itself refers to SFSU, a somewhat far-removed analogue located in San Francisco. Perhaps the Post is stricken by that same lack of copy editors, proofreaders and fact checkers that plagues most print media these days, but it took me all of ten seconds to google the quote and determine its correct source, which is presumably what Kathryn Blaze Carlson was paid to do in the first place. Their inability to distinguish Simon Fraser University from San Francisco State University belies the quality of reporting that informed their editorial, which is chock-full of easily falsifiable claims and unattributed scare quotes:

feminist legal scholars convinced the Supreme Court to permit preferential treatment for “traditionally disadvantaged groups”

Women’s Studies scholars have argued all heterosexual sex is oppression because its “penetrative nature” amounts to “occupation.”

They have…even put forward the notion that the only differences between males and females are “relatively insignificant, external features.”

Interestingly, but not particularly surprisingly, this last unattributed quote regarding the differences between men and women comes from a letter James C. Dobson wrote in response to the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women that was held in Beijing. Dr. Dobson is founder of the evangelical non-profit organization Focus on the Family, which is unequivocally anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-homosexuality, anti-pornography, anti-feminism, anti-Palestine, and all those other antis that American conservative Christians seem to be about. Focus on the Family supported the McCain-Palin ticket, but only after Palin was brought on board; they funded ads equating the United States under Obama and the Democrats to Nazi Germany; and they spent two and a half million dollars to run a pro-life television ad during the upcoming Superbowl. In the letter, Dr. Dobson refers to the Beijing conference as the “most radical, atheistic and anti-family crusade in the history of the world”; he claims that China serves human fetuses in restaurants; and he claims that the conference’s mandate is to “do away with family, impose 50/50 quotas on all activities, eliminate motherhood, and institute polymorphous perversity.” See here for the actual mandate, which includes such radical ideas such as ensuring women access to health care, education, political representation, and employment.

Not only does the Post use this man, of all people, as an authority on women’s studies, but they couch his quote as if it originated from an actual women’s studies scholar. If ever there was an example of embarrassingly, shockingly piss-poor journalism, this is it. Get a grip, National Post.

[h/t Echidne]

Study: Why Science Writers Stink

Pink has been a girl’s colour for about seventy or eighty years. Since the blue-for-boys/pink-for-girls thing has been taken up with such aplomb and vigour by marketers of gendered products, primarily toys and clothes, and since people tend to be painfully ignorant of times other than those they live in, there is a contemporary debate about whether the pink-for-girls/blue-for-boys dichotomy is learned or innate. The very existence of this debate is an embarrassment for anyone who knows anything about anything, but it does provide a good example of how science writers in the popular media tend to skew the results of scientific studies so that they appear to provide support for culturally produced norms or biases. So here it is.

The paper “Biological components of sex differences in color preference” appeared in the August 2007 issue of Current Biology, and is thankfully available in full here. The two researchers involved with this study did a cross-cultural comparison of colour preferences among 208 participants, 171 of which were British caucasian, and 27 of which were mainland Han Chinese. The two groups were roughly split in half by gender. The study involved a simple forced-choice rapid paired-comparison task, where participants were shown two colours on a screen and were asked to select the one they preferred as quickly as possible using a mouse cursor. These were the results:


The two graphs on the bottom, B and C, represent the two sets of tests they did that targeted different contrast-pairs based on the cones in the retina–test B represents the S vs. L and M cones, or blue-yellow contrast, and C represents the L vs. M cones, or red-green contrast. As the graphs show, all participants preferred blue on the blue-yellow test, although men preferred it more, and women preferred red on the red-green test, whereas men preferred green. Keep in mind that these weren’t solid primary colours that were used in the tests, but were rather ranges of hues that were weighted according to the contrast pairs – in other words, women preferred reddish blues overall, whereas men preferred greenish blues.

Note that these results reflect the well-researched phenomenon of male colourblindness, which is something like 10 times greater in the male population than in the female population. The researchers cite two possible causes for these results, based on the possibility that this sex difference is an adaptation: first, women may have evolved the ability to distinguish reds from greens because they were the gatherers and they needed the ability to distinguish fruits from foliage, whereas making subtle colour distinctions was not as necessary for men, who were the hunters. Second, women may have evolved the ability to distinguish subtle shades of red in order to recognize flushed faces, which was necessary to fulfill their role as nurturing caregivers.

The second explanation seems like bunk, to use the parlance of our times. A study that showed a group of men and women flushed faces and demonstrated that men were less able to distinguish them from regular faces might give this theory more credence, but until then it seems like pure speculation. The second explanation makes sense, assuming that we have reliable data somewhere that indicates women were the gatherers while men were out hunting (I am by no means an anthropologist). Trichromacy would be a very useful adaptation if reddish fruits and vegetables were a big part of our diet, and females would evolve better colour vision if finding those fruits and veggies was their job. However well paleoanthropology explains trichromacy, though, I am not clear from reading the paper how preference for reddish colours is based on the ability to distinguish reddish colours. If I conceded that women are more likely to be trichromatic because of the evolutionary explanation, it would not follow that they like reddish colours more just because they can distinguish them. If they indicated a preference because “red” indicates “food,” then why wouldn’t men with normal colour vision register the same preference? Indeed, even in the case of the bunk explanation, reddish colours may well be associated with distress, which would make them less preferable. The point I’m trying to make is not that either theory is more or less correct, but that neither theory does even a half-assed job of explaining the results, so it’s tempting to look at the proffered explanations as being heavily biased.

Compared to the article in Time, though, the research paper is a work of extreme sensitivity. The Time article overlooks the dubious link between the article’s data and its explanation, and frames the whole thing as if the study were proof that women inherently like pink more than blue. Nevermind that the study had very little to do with pink, or that the study said more about preferences for red and green than about pink and blue; the Times saw an opportunity to reinforce their previously held assumptions under the guise of science, and they went for it. It’s unfortunate, then, that although they did a surprisingly good job of summarizing the article, the message that they ended up getting across had less to do with the study itself than it did with Time’s biases. Their caveat near the beginning,

women may be biologically programmed to prefer the color pink — or, at least, redder shades of blue — more than men

(emphasis added) ends up drowned under the headline just above it that proclaims definitively that the study explains “Why Girls Like Pink.” As Kapitano once said with regard to Neuroskeptic, “To be well informed about science, ignore everything you read about it in newspapers. Then read some science books if you like, but ignoring journalists is the important thing.”

Newscast chartjunk: a totally unscientific analysis

“When a graphic is taken over by decorative forms or computer debris, when the data measures and structures become Design Elements,  when the overall design purveys Graphical Style rather than quantitative information, then that graphic may be called a duck in honor of the duck-form store, ‘Big Duck.’ For this building the whole structure is itself decoration, just as in the duck data graphic.”


This was written by Edward Tufte, a Yale statistician who could be tentatively called the world’s biggest expert on the design of information graphics. Using the concept of a duck, he developed the terms “chartjunk” and “data-ink ratio” in his beautiful book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information to describe graphic displays of information that overwhelm the information itself with extraneous and irrelevent design elements.

For some reason, chartjunk is a mainstay of the information graphics featured on network television newscasts. I will use the term “signal-to-noise ratio” to refer to the ratio of the information content of a newscast to all of the extraneous production factors that go into broadcasting that information, like elaborate sets, advanced green-screen technology, gimmicky re-enactments, fancy graphics, and other frills. I have an unproven hypothesis that the signal-to-noise ratio of informational graphics displayed during a newscast  directly correlates with the signal-to-noise ratio of the newscast as a whole.

For example, the following graphic was played on The National during a story about Maple Leaf foods and its newly revamped factory.




The entire sequence took about 23 seconds, during which the narrator introduced the survey and read out the results. All of this information can easily and clearly be represented with this small table:


Taking in this amount of information would probably take under 5 seconds for the average human, especially considering that it’s not really that interesting (who cares what the difference is between people who no longer buy Maple Leaf and people who no longer eat Maple Leaf?). The salient point, that people are still wary of Maple Leaf meat, hardly requires any quantitative information at all.

But conceding that the producers of the program thought this graphic was a worthwhile addition to the story, let’s analyze it a little further. Tufte gives the following equation for the data-ink ratio:


Giving the CBC the benefit of the doubt and ignoring TV screen size, the data-ink ratio of their graphic is probably less than 0.1, much less if we take into account the time dimension. That means that not only does 90% of the graphic have no information content whatsoever, but that the 90% is competing with the 10% that actually is information for the viewer’s attention.

An important thing to note at this point is that I consider The National to be one of the best newscasts available, and it’s sobering every time I see a dumb graphic like this one and imagine all of the time and expense that goes into producing fancy animated backgrounds and other junk instead of actually producing good information. The most sobering aspect of these graphics, though, is the fact that CBC is actually near the high-end of the newscast hierarchy;  graphics on other channels are often much, much worse, and they reflect quite accurately the abysmal quality of other newscasts in their entirety.

We can compare the CBC to newscasts like Fox and CNN to get a better idea of the correlation I’m talking about. Here is a screenshot of CNN’s election night coverage, courtesy of djspyhunter (here‘s the Youtube clip):


As you can see, the signal-to-noise ratio here is much worse than that of the CBC graphic, and it is exacerbated by the fact that several different data sets are being displayed concurrently, with no clear boundaries between them. This kind of graphic is very characteristic of CNN’s overall signal-to-noise ratio, which is aptly exemplified by a feature they introduced on November 4th that they refer to as a “hologram”:

Obviously this system adds nothing to a traditional split-screen other than much more superfluous junk that distracts from the actual conversation, and suggests that the content of the conversation is only incidental to the delivery system.

Here is a graphic from Fox with only one data point:


As always, the background is heavily animated in order to be as distracting as possible. Here is a table showing the same data:


It was shown for about half the time that the CBC one was shown for, but it also has less than half the information, which gives it roughly the same data-ink ratio. As in the case of CNN, this kind of graphic is indicative of the signal-to-noise ratio of the rest of the channel’s programming:

Okay I admit that may have been slightly unfair, but I think my point is clear. Tufte states succinctly,

The conditions under which many data graphics are produced–the lack of substantive and quantitative skill of the illustrators, dislike of quantitative evidence, and contempt for the intelligence of the audience–guarantee graphic mediocrity.

And, as I have been arguing, these same factors often affect the entire newscast as well. We can assume that good newscasters respect their audience enough to treat them like intelligent adults. This would involve the assumption that intelligent adults can handle small amounts of statistical or numerical data without becoming bored, that they can appreciate the news-value of the numbers themselves, and that they consider bombardment with useless information to be an insult to their intelligence. Good newscasters, we would assume, try to devote as much of the time and space available to them to disseminating timely, accurate, insightful and thought-provoking information. Fox and CNN clearly do not respect their viewers, nor do they consider them intelligent adults. Much more of their time and energy goes into developing new, advanced forms of chartjunk to clutter their screens and obscure their information, rather than into increasing the quality of their journalism and the accuracy of their reporting. While viewers do always have the option of changing the channel, it is unfortunate that the Fox and CNN approaches to newscasting seem to be taking over all the other stations as well, including the CBC; many media critics would cite this tendency as a symptom of the struggle for market share and advertising revenue where the desire to raise viewership numbers always trumps the importance of good broadcasting.

“We are watching Fox”

The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) did a fascinating study on public perceptions of the Iraq War in 2003, with the results published in the Political Science Quarterly. Here is a link to the full text of the article.

The study analyzed the weird disparity between people’s pre-war perceptions of the Iraq situation, such as their beliefs that the evidence of Hussein’s link to Al Qaeda or the evidence of WMDs was insufficient to launch a unilateral attack, and their ultimate support of the president’s decision to go to war. In a series of seven polls from January to September of 2003, they examined the misperceptions that were prevalent among supporters of the war that led them to believe that the war was a good idea despite a lack of supporting evidence, and the possible causes of these misperceptions.

What the actual misperceptions were is not so interesting, especially since it’s been five years since the poll and most of the misperceptions are old hat. The causes of the misperceptions, though, are much more interesting to speculate about. The researchers examined eight factors that they surmised may have influenced people’s misperceptions, and found that a few of them had a strong correlation with the number of misperceptions held by each individual. Incidentally, the two most powerful factors were intention to vote for George W. Bush in the next election (2004), and which station served as the primary source of network news. “Having Fox, CBS, or NPR/PBS as one’s primary news source,” they found, “emerges as the most significant predictor of […] misperceptions in general”:

Fox is the most consistently significant predictor of misperceptions. Those who primarily watched Fox were 2.0 times more likely to believe that close links to al Qaeda have been found, 1.6 times more likely to believe that WMD had been found, 1.7 times more likely to believe that world public opinion was favorable to the war, and 2.1 times more likely to have at least one misperception. […]

Those who primarily watched CBS were 1.8 times more likely to believe that close links to al Qaeda have been found, 1.9 times more likely to believe that world public opinion was favorable to the war, and 2.3 times more likely to have at least one misperception. However, they were not significantly different on beliefs about the uncovering of WMD.

On the other hand, those who primarily watched PBS or listened to NPR were 3.5 times less likely to believe that close links to al Qaeda have been found, 5.6 times less likely to believe that world public opinion was favorable to the war, and 3.8 times less likely to have at least one misperception. However, they were not significantly different on the issue of WMD.

But wait, it gets better: they also found that “level of attention to news was not a significant factor overall, with the exception of those who primarily got their news from Fox.” Fox viewers, in other words, were the only ones who were shown to become increasingly misinformed the more they watched the news. Robert Talisse and Scott F. Aikin paraphrase it thusly: “increased attention to the media forms that tend to feature more by way of real time argumentation – namely, television and radio, as opposed to print sources – is positively correlated with political ignorance.”

Talisse and Aikin used the PIPA study to support their concept of what they call a selective straw man fallacy (“Two Forms of the Straw Man.” Argumentation 20.3; full text). This is when a person, A, selects a weak argument against his own argument, refutes that weak argument, and then generalizes from that refutation to all counterarguments that might oppose his own argument. So, for instance, if B, C, and D all have counterarguments to A’s argument, and B’s is the weakest counterargument, A will refute B’s counterargument and then claim that he has refuted all opposition to his own argument. This kind of argumentation is seen all the time in popular political discourse:

The audience is expected to rely upon the author to present the opponent’s view, the author presents what is in fact a more-or-less accurate depiction of what some of the weakest opponents have said, the author easily refutes the opponents, and then explicitly takes himself or herself to have shown that all extant articulations of the opposing view are as easily dismantled.

Talisse and Aikin conclude that

The result is a popular public discourse of heightened passion and outrage that grows increasingly ignorant of what is actually in dispute. Under such conditions, a premium is placed on holding one’s ground without regard to the reasons and arguments of those who disagree; that is, the result is a total undermining of argumentation.

The “total undermining of argumentation,” I would suggest, is what makes Republican talk show hosts so insufferable. But frustration with Republicans aside, the PIPA study is alarming in its demonstration of the relative ease with which the President is able to mobilize support for his policies based on outright falsehoods, and the level of complicity of certain types of media in perpetuating, or at least failing to repudiate these false beliefs. Something to think about next time you’re listening to Sean Hannity.