Monthly Archives: March 2015


Proving cultural signaling – sometimes ads can be laughable and still be effective

A few weeks ago I was in a bar and this ad came on:

It’s a totally ridiculous ad, almost a parody of itself. How could it ever convince someone to buy the truck? Must the people who own that truck be total idiots if they fell for this advertising? How nakedly obvious is it? At first, this is what I thought, as we laughed at the ad. However, I now think I was wrong.

All of those things are what you think upon first watching the ad spot, but a friend of mine also recently linked to this post: Ads Don’t Work That Way, a fascinating read. Maybe it’s because I used to work at an advertising company, but I love seeing the cultural implications and messages that ads provide. It’s like a mini lesson in psychology, sociology, economics, and anthropology for free in 30 seconds!

In any case, that post suggests that many brand ads aren’t directly trying to convince you of the brand’s qualities. For the uninitiated,brand ads that aren’t trying to tell you about a deal or inform you of the existence of a product, but instead are trying to get you to associate positive qualities with a brand such as “coke is fun and social” or “disney is family-friendly” or “corona is relaxing, like a vacation”. The post suggests that truly these ads are not trying to convince you of the brand’s qualities itself, but instead trying to convince you that others will associate those qualities with you when they see your purchase.

Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser “says” something about you. But you aren’t in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It’s then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a “chill” person? Then bring Corona to a party.

Later on:

In this way, cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it’s not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it — and know that they know that they know it… and so on.

So now we can take another look at the car ad through this “Cultural imprinting” lens. Our ad now makes a lot more sense – it’s not trying to give you feelings about the truck or promise performance or anything like that. Instead the ad is proving that Chevy’s previous campaigns have been successful in imparting common knowledge that “real men drive trucks like this”. If actual schoolchildren understand this association, it means that everyone must understand this association, and so if you show up in a Prius to a party you will be perceived as a total pansy, as someone who “probably owns a bird”.

In this way it’s genius – who needs to spend millions of dollars filming pickup trucks driving through the Mojave desert when you can just get 20 children into a room and ask them basic questions? Of course, Chevy still needs to make those kinds of ads as well to keep the common knowledge going! This one ad is just so efficient at what it’s trying to do I have to tip my hat to it, before I ride off into the sunset in my Prius with my pet bird.

finance green politics

Letter to Swarthmore’s Board Supporting Divestment

Just sent this letter to Swarthmore’s board (, exciting things are happening around divestment!

For those interested, here is:

Dear Mr. Kemp and Swarthmore Board,

I know you are busy people, and I will try to be brief.

I understand your concerns and truly appreciate your stewardship of the college through presidents, new generations, recessions, and more. The steadiness and sobriety of the board is important to keep Swarthmore on the right path.

However, after much consideration, I have to respectfully disagree with the board’s decision not to divest our endowment from fossil fuels. Our college for many years has espoused ideals around sustainability, and to keep ourselves honest we must take this step and lead. Yes, we should not use the endowment as an active political tool without great hesitation. Yet, when 97% of scientists agree on an issue and the college’s public statements for years have agreed that climate change is an issue, to not act would be in violation of our Swarthmore’s principles.

Others more elegant have argued why this is useful morally, and others have also demonstrated its utility as a tactical move (it will not be an empty symbolic gesture, but an important signal in how fossil fuels are perceived).

As you all are practical people, however, I’d like to point out some reasons why this is prudent for Swarthmore, moral arguments aside:

  • We must align our investments with our values, or risk reputationally being seen as hypocritical
  • There is a very strong likelihood that the Carbon Bubble is real – removing our investment in fossil fuels avoids the large downside we are risking if those fossil fuels stay in the ground, which basic logic suggests is likely
  • We gain reputation & prestige by leading the charge instead of following meekly

As the moral and financial evidence that this is a good idea becomes more clear, the risk that we are leading down the wrong path diminishes. Let us reap the practical gains by leading this movement, as well as some of the financial gains by being among the first to divest.

Young alums are watching this issue closely, as we know that ultimately it will be us who have to deal with the more extreme effects of climate change. We know that you are working with the best interests of Swarthmore and future generations at heart, and hope that the many arguments in favor of divestment are strong enough to stand up to your intellectual scrutiny. I believe they are strong enough, and that it is time to divest. I believe the moral, financial, and other pragmatic reasons suggest it is time as well, and that we will look back at this decision with pride as a time Swarthmore led the way to a better outcome for both humanity and for itself.

Thank you for your time,
Colin Schimmelfing 2010