Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The marketplace of shitty ideas

You were probably directed here because someone, somewhere out in the internet, told you that a joke you made was misogynistic. And you're probably thinking that they are crazy - you don't hate women, it was just a joke, and they are making mountains out of molehills. Annoying!

Hang with me a minute here. This is all going to connect up.

You probably don't think that advertising works on you either. McDonald's keep playing their adds and flashing their logo, and playing their jingle, but it's not like it makes your eyes half close while you chant "must... have... McBurger" (though that would be pretty awesome). You see Coke ads, and don't immediately go running to the corner store. And yet top brands like Coke spend hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars a year on advertising.

So here's my foolproof get rich plan for you: All you need to do is get a job at some company, and cut their advertising budget to zero. Boom, free profit. Work up to one of the big brands, and you could save them a billion bucks overnight. Take, say, 1% of that as a bonus, and that's $10 million a year.

But if it were that easy, some ambitious young jerk would have done it already, and have the private jet to show for it. If Coke stopped advertising their brand image would slip, and then so would their sales.

Advertising works like this: You don't remember the exact Coke ads you see (seriously, what was the last one you saw?), but over time an image gets burned into your mind of Coke as warm and fuzzy. They constantly reinforce this image with hundreds of adverts, and repetitions of their logo. When you walk into a store looking for a drink, you see the Coke label, and it resonates with these stored feelings of warmth, somewhere in the deeper depths of your brain, and you find yourself reaching past the Pepsi and the store brand cola (even though it's much cheaper!). That's how a lot of advertising works.

A very similar thing happens in politics, except there it's called framing instead of branding. There's a right wing frame which talks about people as responsible for looking after themselves, and a left wing frame which talks about helping each other out when we're down. Right wing arguments seem way more sensible if you're all set up with a right wing frame ("reduce welfare, to get people to help themselves"), and vice versa for left wing ones ("protect welfare, as a safety net for when we stumble").

So brands and frames matter. A lot. They don't turn you into a zombie, or make you obey, but they give extra resonance to the world you live in, by making some options seem more reasonable and appealing and alive to you.

So what does that have to do with "misogynist" jokes?

Women are on the receiving end of a lot of bullshit that men aren't. If you switched your gender for a month you'd be surprised at how much of it. From petty harassment (common) up to rape (too common), there's a whole spectrum of bullshit that lands on you as a woman. Most of the guys who do this stuff (even the rapes) aren't psychopaths. We've got a handy stereotype that they're sick fucks who live in nasty basements, snatching women off the street, but it mostly doesn't work like that. Most of it comes from guys who are otherwise pretty normal, and most rape is date rape - guys who know the girl but get too pushy, too persistent, and take it over the line. And when it happens the guy is almost never thinking "hur hur, teh EVUL". Talk to them, and their language is distancing - she was a bitch, or acting like a whore or a cock-tease.

Ok, you aren't like that. But when you make jokes like the one you just got called on, you are putting out branding for team asshole. You didn't mean to, but you are referencing and reinforcing ways of thinking that resonate for assholes with sexist behavior. Coke has to pay billions of dollars to get to get message repeated in front of people, in whatever funny or whimsical or lighthearted or sincere way they can. Telling a joke that draws on negative stereotypes (whore, bitch, tease, etc) doesn't turn anyone into a rapist zombie, but it does reinforce a mental frame that is comfortable with seeing women as less than fully human - as objects that sexually gratify or don't, rather than free agents who pick their own destinies.

Yes, jokes are all about violating boundaries, it's part of what makes them funny. But before you tell ones like this, think about who you're telling it in front of - is it a world wide web full of anonymous people? Some of whom are going to be assholes? Is it something that those jackasses can read as making it look like it's ok to treat women as objects? Because if they can, they will. So unless you're 100% sure you've asshole-proofed the joke, it's better not to.

Bottom line: Quit giving free advertising to rape culture. Do a reverse Nike: Just don't.

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