Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Propaganda and truth


Since I've been thinking a bit about propaganda, let me share a thought. For some time now I've been bothered by public health campaigns (or other education campaigns) that don't tell the truth. One example (suggested by my sister-in-law) is the much-mocked "This is your brain on drugs" tv ad. It's a striking visual metaphor: cracking an egg onto a hot frying pan. But is it truthful? It refers to "drugs" (presumably illicit), but which ones? What's the evidence that they "fry" your brain? Perhaps your brain has to already be fried before you'd consider using them. Or perhaps some of the drugs actually enhance your brain. But I don't think that truthfulness was the point of the ad. It was meant to convince, not to genuinely inform. And how do you convince people? By using the techniques perfected by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda. Ok, maybe that's a cheap shot, but I think propaganda is a dirty business.

As a matter of principle, I think that public health campaigns should tell people the truth. I remember with HIV/AIDS the "safe sex" slogans that eventually gave way to the more honest term "safer sex". From a pragmatic standpoint, if you tell people something, and then a little later admit that "maybe that wasn't quite true", you risk losing credibility. Sometimes you'll hear someone say something condescending like "people can't handle the truth." What's that supposed to mean?

One objection that may be raised is that you have to simplify things to communicate with the public. I don't dispute that, but you can still tell the truth. If you need to simplify something you can provide an indication that that's what you've done (and perhaps suggest where to get more details).

Another objection might center on the word "truth", which of course opens up a whole philosophical can of worms. When Jesus used the word, Pontius Pilate replied "What is truth?" But it wasn't an honest question, it was jaded cynicism. Without denying the complexity of the question (when asked honestly), I think it can be provisionally set aside by saying that "the truth" means what one honestly believes to be true. I don't deny that that sounds circular.

Advertising is an inevitable aspect of the marketplace. But the marketplace shouldn't rule supreme. I can accept that marketers will influence my choice of shampoo, but I don't think they should be involved in the content of public health campaigns!
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6 Comments:

Anonymous Mike Anderson said...

It's not clear that the marketplace rules supreme when it comes to public health advertisement. No bureaucrat storms into the ad agency and fires everyone when the latest teen doper statistics are on the rise.

My pet peeve is the spate of commercials about spousal and child abuse. If you're sensitive enough to respond to these ads (or even sit through them), what's the chance that you'd be an abuser in the first place?

I suspect many state-sponsored ad campaigns are mainly driven by institutional interia (it's what we always do; we have an approved contract; I know a guy in Hollywood; etc.) and only a little motivated by issues like effectiveness or truth.

10:25 AM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

What I meant about the marketplace ruling supreme was that a public health campaign is viewed as "just another marketing campaign". (I was thinking more generally about the role of the marketplace in society, but that may have blurred my specific point.)

I think you've put your finger on it, by mentioning effectiveness. I guess my point is that truth should be a given; only then should effectiveness be considered.

BTW for the sake of clarity, I've just made a slight correction to my post by substituting "marketers" for "advertisers" in my final sentence. It now reads "I can accept that marketers will influence my choice of shampoo ...".

11:38 AM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger Zeno said...

In my junior college health class, I sat through an anti-drug film narrated by Sonny & Cher. It was about 1970. We watched dumbfounded as Sonny explained and the film depicted how drug users would experience wild hallucinations and manic behavior when under the influence of ... marijuana! It was like a remake of the infamous Reefer Madness.

Although I didn't realize the extent of it at the time, my class was full of students who knew from first-hand experience that pot merely made them zoned-out and mellow. (Heck, if you want to experience irrational rages, bulk up on steroids, perhaps slipped to you by the same P.E. coaches who teach the health classes with Sonny & Cher anti-drug films.) Even I found the film laughable—and my personal drug experience is zilch.

Nick's main point is that we tend not to believe liars once we recognize them as such. The film in my health ed class probably inoculated most of us against ever believing the anti-drug warnings put out by The Man (whether represented by our teacher, our parents, or public service announcements on TV). The truth is a much more effective weapon, even though it's not as melodramatic as the hype.

12:47 PM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger Raywat Deonandan said...

There used to be a powerful public health message trundled out in various ads: "when you sleep with someone, you're also sleeping with everyone they've ever slept with." Then a cocky epidemiologist insisted that the line was inaccurate (which it is) and it was yanked from many marketplaces, even though focus groups showed it was effective in curtailing risky sex.

This is similar to the "this is your brain on drugs" bit.

I suppose the question is whether the makers of such ads are entitled to a bit of artistic licence. The core message of both ads is that a certain behaviour is risky to your health, and this is truth. To cache that truth in a saleable graphic, metaphor or saying is lesser truth but perhaps also art.

So these instances are not just cases of whether the ends (decreased risky behaviour) justify the means (skewed truth). Rather, they are also instances of whether anything short of dry recitations of epidemiological facts with error estimates are to be permitted in public health campaigns, in lieu of more effective and pelasurable art.

3:12 PM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I wouldn't define "truth" so narrowly that only "dry recitations of epidemiological facts with error estimates" would qualify. (Your mention of error estimates is interesting, however. I once heard John Tukey say that point estimates should always be accompanied by honest estimates of uncertainty.)

I think there's room for art. But the art has to be secondary to a truthful message.

I don't think the "this is your brain on drugs" ad is telling the truth. The message is clearly that drug use damages your brain. What's the evidence? Perhaps some drugs do damage your brain. But I imagine that some do not.

As for the message "when you sleep with someone, you're also sleeping with everyone they've ever slept with", this strikes me as truthful (in a broad sense). What was the objection raised by the "cocky epidemiologist"?

5:07 PM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger Raywat Deonandan said...

The cocky epidemiologist wasn't me, by the way.

The objection was that the phrase's implication was that the risk of transmission from a 1st order partner is equal to the risk from a 2nd order and nth order partner. Or something like that.

5:42 PM, January 11, 2006  

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