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

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.

2 thoughts on “Proving cultural signaling – sometimes ads can be laughable and still be effective

  1. I thought this was a brilliant ad when I saw it. Not as good as the Cadillac ad (, but it’s going off of similar things. The brilliance in these ads is that they are self-aware and somewhat tongue in cheek. Your reaction to the ad becomes part of the cultural signal. People’s outrage at the ad outs them as pretty lame to those who “get” the ad.

    1. Oh damn, this is a great one as well. I love the youtube comments!
      “I drive a Cadillac, which makes me the prototype of American capitalism and basically is like I was an astronaut who went to the moon” :-P
      The thing is, this ad GETS that attitude about America more than a 2000 word essay in the Atlantic. It really is a 30 second sociology lesson…

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