My Recent Trip to RPI

Last week, Julia and I went up to my old college: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. I hadn’t been there in quite a while and now that I am bit older and am attending another university (Universität Heidelberg) in Germany, some things were apparent that hadn’t been while I was there. This is, then, a short list of random observations that I made in my few hours at RPI.

Dining Hall

The food in the dining hall was okay, but not as good as I remember. There were far more posters on the wall calling for people to eat healthy. Each section had a vegetarian meal and there was even a vegan meal in the center of the room. I assume they offer it every day. I was really happy to see this. They have the same in Heidelberg, but I was not sure the same movement in the states.

The Commons cafeteria at RPI.

The Commons cafeteria at RPI.

There were still the same two soda fountains in the cafeteria offering a variety of drinks. Refills are free, as you are only required to pay once when entering the cafeteria. In Germany by comparison, no drinks are free (including water) and prices usually start at 2 Euros, or $2.50 for a 20 ounce bottle. There is a strange incentive to take soda/juice when you have already paid the entrance fee. Even though I drink water 90% of the time, I felt like I was wasting something by not taking a free “upgrade” drink. I can’t help but wonder if small differences like this partially account for the weight/diabetes epidemic in America.

Land of the free soda.

Land of the free soda.

On the same topic, after offering free hard and soft ice cream with toppings, by the exit you could get a Magnum or Nutty Buddy ice cream “to go.”

The technological church

I always thought it was weird that an old church in RPI was turned into a computing center, but I never realized just how weird. I can’t imagine another time in all of history when such a blasphemous act could be committed. What better tangible example of Nietzsche’s idea of the shift from faith in God to a faith in Science?

The front of the Voorhees Computing Center.

The front of the Voorhees Computing Center.

Stained glass windows among computers.

Stained glass windows among computers.

The EMPAC Building

When I graduated in 2005, the new EMPAC building wasn’t yet completed. It is quite an architectural marvel. Julia and I got to walk around a bit inside and go into the huge blimp-shaped theater that protrudes out of the building.

The EMPAC building.

The EMPAC building.

The reflection of the city in the glass of the EMPAC building.

The reflection of the city in the glass of the EMPAC building.

 

I felt very nostalgic when I visited RPI, which I hadn’t counted on. I had already visited a few times after I graduated and didn’t feel very emotional about it. I appreciated the architecture, the landscaping, and the weather more and genuinely missed being there with all of my good friends, with whom, I am happy to say, I still get to see much more often than most other people I talk to – what luck.

On a final note, one thing I don’t miss is the price. After we got home I looked it up: $46,000 per year without room and without food. All in all, you can count on $60,000 a year. That is $240,000, or one house, if you graduate in four years. In Heidelberg I pay 135 Euros a semester: less than the prices of two books at RPI (sidenote: I had to buy no books at Heidelberg last semester). This tiny price includes discounted food and public transportation as well as a free sport and fitness program, psychological services, etc. Many people in Germany have asked me how and why Americans do it instead of protesting: for Germans this price is unthinkable. I don’t have a good answer for them as I don’t know myself. I  guess we don’t think there is another option. I am here to tell you there is. People in the USA have laughed when I have told them to educate their child in Germany, but I’ve been serious each time. You get to be a part of a wonderful culture, expand your horizons, save enough money to buy a house, and the only “cost” is learning the German language, which is actually a joy in disguise.

On Advertising

I wanted to name this article “Why I hate (almost) all advertising”, but I figured many less people would click on it as the position seems very extreme. And maybe my position on the matter is extreme, but of course that in and of itself does not necessarily make it wrong. I think we have gone morally and intellectually way off course with advertising.

In this article, I hope to outline a brief history of advertising, where I think it has gone wrong, and where I think it is (wrongly) going in the future. I hope to make a compelling argument that convinces more than zero people to move slightly in the direction of agreeing with me, something that I think is hard to do nowadays. Even if people strongly disagree, I welcome any conversation on the topic. Anyway, my attempt…

A Brief History of Advertising

According to Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, America saw its first paid newspaper advertisements in the early 1704. Two such advertisements took the form of a Wanted ad for the capture of a thief and the renting of a plot of land. These and other such advertisements during Postman’s “Age of Exposition” and what I will call “Phase 1 of Advertising” were predicated on the fact that the customers were literate, rational, and analytical. The advertisements actually made claims about their products.

During “Phase 2”, which Postman describes well in the following quote, we see a dramatic shift:

As late as 1980, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form. Advertising was, as Stephen Douglas said in another context, intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions. This is not to say that during the period of typographic display, the claims that were put forward were true. Words cannot guarantee their truth content. Rather, they assemble a context in which the question, ‘Is this true or false?’, is relevant.

Postman goes on to say that this is the time during which America saw its first illustrations in advertising in addition to the use of slogans (e.g. “You press the button; we do the rest.”) This is followed by jingles and rhymes. Postman adds:

By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their customers. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory.

It is hard to disagree with Postman here, even today. Almost no commercial today, written or televised, assumes consumer rationality. Many state no facts about the product or service to be sold, but instead rely upon emotional appeal. While heavily utilized throughout the past 100 years, I believe this phase is starting to be eclipsed by a new, socially and politically motivated breed of advertising. This form puts the product or service being peddled in the extreme background and relies upon the consumer agreeing to an ideology to make the sale. I call this Phase 3, and will describe the dangers of this as well as Phase 2 below.

What is wrong with Advertising?

Advertising in and of itself does not seem morally ambiguous. In fact, what I have described as Phase 1 above seems to be perfectly fine. If the advertisement makes you aware of a brand and does so in an honest way, then there seems to be nothing wrong (One could argue, that advertisements being everywhere in the modern world could be seen as wrong – in this article I hope to only discuss within the context of a given advertisement). What does it mean to be honest? This is where Phase 2 of advertising goes wrong. Postman’s claim that advertising in this period often contains no truth propositional content seems hardly debatable. Remember, this means that the content of the advertisement can be true or false. As an example “Fords are the safest automobile as rated by X” can be either true or false. “Just do it” or “Obey your thirst” have no truth propositional content and are thus empty: they tell you nothing of the product and make no actual claim that can be verified.

Commercials of this era often do not attempt to claim anything at all and often rely on emotional appeal to sell a product. A great example is from Fancy Feast:

What have you learned about Fancy Feast in this commercial? Absolutely nothing. Further, the brand scores particularly low compared to other cat foods. This does not faze most people I talk to, probably because this type of marketing is so rampant that they expect it and only hope to be entertained. When people talk about and spread a commercial like this because of the emotional appeal (marriage, love, cute cat), the emotional content crowds out any need for propositional content. As a result, successful companies become not those that produce the best cat food, but those that produce the best marketing and/or advertising teams. This is why ALS received a lot of money for the Ice Bucket Challenge even though relatively few people contract ALS and we are nowhere near to a cure: because the advertising and marketing plans for ALS were much better than for other charities (Consider donating at http://www.givewell.org/ to get the most out of your dollar!). Psychological, manipulative tricks are developed and utilized to get you to buy a product, instead of the product relying upon its own merits.

Notice that in Phase 2, the product has receded into the background. The goal is to get you into a mood or feeling and then present to you an often unrelated product, in the hopes that you associate the two in your head. In Phase 3 of Advertising, the product or service recedes possibly even more, and ideology replaces direct emotional appeals. Take, for instance, the following Ax commercial:

Like Phase 2, we see the product only at the very end of the video. But here we see more. At the end of the video we find out something about “Peace One Day” and “Supporting Peace One Day” and we are asked to tweet with #KissForPeace, a phrase that contains the product name in an insidious way; a tweeter might see the phrase and retag it without even being aware of the Axe campaign to sell more Axe. Here we have the new Axe product bound up with notions of patriotism, peace, and love much more directly than in the Fancy Feasts commercial.  We are for peace (who isn’t?) and want to share it with our friends on social media. Fancy Feasts made a cute commercial that reminds one of positive emotions. Axe becomes a symbol of peace.

Another example for Dove:

Here we are told that beauty is on the inside (from a beauty product company!) and want to invest in a campaign to lift women’s feeling of self-worth. Notably, this commercial does not even advertise a specific product, but wants you to form a general positive association with the brand. The product, therefore, has receded into nothingness.

Lately there have been many such “see yourself positively, ladies” advertisements. The feminist that I am feels crushed by the fact that these advertisements are so tricky and serve to sell more products. To me, the fact that they are selling a product compromises the positive message. This is likea really good friend of yours says they heard of a great new plan for you to make money and you later find out that they make more money in the process by selling to you. It is disappointing and deceptive. Here is one for Always, again, no specific product:

Here is one for Verizon:

These have drifted so far from selling any actual product or service that it is almost unbelievable. These videos attempt to convey that these companies understand deep, human emotions and needs, but that is something they can never do, for they compromise their ideals by virtue of the fact that they are selling something. As a result, “I’m lovin’ it” can never say anything about love, no matter how hard it tries.

What Can We Do?

When a problem is so ubiquitous, it can seem overwhelming and fruitless to even try to find a solution. Still, I think we need to do our best. For one example, I think we can learn more about the various tricks that companies employ when creating advertising. A good start is to review some informal fallacies, something that I strongly believe should be taught in high school, if not grade school. These show the various ways that claims can be falsely made (when there is a claim at all! (“Just do it!”). People of all ages that I know seem unaware of the common techniques that advertisers (and politicians, journalists, etc) use to make (unfounded) points. We can think more critically when we see a commercial and analyze what it is trying to convey, instead of simply accepting that commercials can or should be pure entertainment completely divorced from the product or service they are trying to sell.

Kant and Crosswalks

In most cities I have been to in Germany, the majority of people who want to cross the street wait when the crosswalk light is red, regardless of if any cars or bikers can be seen down the whole stretch of the road or if it is late at night and no cars are expected to come. They just wait. There are even signs that say something like “Be a role model for children. Wait at a red light.” In contrast,  I would say the majority of people in America (at least in the East Coast) cross the street when they believe it is reasonable, even if the light is red. If there are no cars in plain sight, it is reasonable. If they are late for something, it is reasonable. While this difference between the two lands is seemingly innocuous, I can’t help but think that a deep philosophical difference underpins this phenomenon and others like it.

In broad strokes, there have been two big ethical traditions (excluding a third, Virtue Ethics, that I won’t cover here): Consequentialism, often realized through Utilitarianism, and Deontology. While big words and big ideas, they have relatively straightforward definitions:

Consequentialism is an ethical system where the consequences matter. For example, if someone asks me if a dress looks good, it may be ethically good to lie and say “yes”, because I believe that the consequences (in this case, that the person feels happy) are better than if I had told the truth (the person feels sad). In any kind of system where the consequences matter, we must necessarily make a calculation to determine if our decision is ethical or not. In any calculation, you need some way of valuing the things that are to be calculated. In other words, what exactly does it mean for something to be “worth it”? Utilitarianism is a concrete system of Consequentialism that answers this question through the notion of utility. Utility in this context is the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain. Modern economics can be seen through this lens. Economic transactions are good because both parties are better off than they were before, or they wouldn’t have traded. It doesn’t really matter that much what they are trading, the fact that their respective utilities went up is a good thing and something we want to promote. This system is often intuitive, but like most things, can get into trouble at the extremes. While most people feel that it is ethically correct to divert a runaway train that is bound to kill 5 people two a track where it will only kill 1 person, thereby saving the lives of 4, many more people feel unsure when asked to kill 1 healthy person going to to the doctor for a regular checkup to save the 5 people there that each need one of 5 organs that the unlucky person could provide, even though the two cases appear to be logically extremely similar and it would be hard to point out any differences that should account for our change in attitudes.

The gut reaction in the doctor case is that people have a right not to be killed, even if the consequences are great. This view is much more deontological. Deontology, then, is an ethical system that has a set of rules that should not be broken no matter what. You have a right not to be killed regardless of the consequences. This system, while also intuitive in a lot of cases, runs into problems at the extremes as well. The most famous example is as follows: A person runs to your home in a panic, tells you that a killer is chasing them and asks for refuge. You oblige and moments later are met by another knock at the door. It is the killer and they ask if you have seen the refugee. In this case, it seems overwhelmingly intuitive that to lie is the correct decision. A deontological system that say lying is wrong, however, forces you even in this case to forget about the (huge!) consequences of your decision and to tell the truth, thereby directly leading to the death of the refugee.

In case this all seems abstract and typical philosophical hogwash, consider that according to German law, you can’t shoot down down a plane that has been hijacked by terrorists. From the article:

Germany’s highest court overturned a law Wednesday that had authorized the government to shoot down hijacked civilian airliners, ruling that it was unconstitutional to sacrifice the lives of passengers to protect potential targets of a terrorist attack. (my emphasis)

In hijacking situations, such as 9/11, there is a reasonable expectation that the people on board the airplane will be killed anyway, in addition to the people that will be killed by the plane crashing into it is intended target. For a Utilitarian, this decision is obvious: shoot the plane down, because Dead Passengers + Dead That Will Be Killed By Terrorist Attack > Dead Passengers. Germany, however, seems much more rooted in Deontology, which makes sense considering the modern proponent of Deontology, Immanuel Kant, was German.

So where does this leave us? It seems to me that, whether the average German is conscious of it or not, stopping at a crosswalk when the light is red because it is adheres to a rule that has been established to the society to which they belong and regardless of the consequences, is a result of the Kantian and Deontological ethical position and is just a tiny example of how ethics actually affects our daily lives even in the smallest of ways.

For a broad introduction to topics of ethics I highly recommend:

I am also interested in what people think about these issues, so please feel free to post something.