Friday, January 06, 2006

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity?


Okay, I take it back. Maybe I was wrong to suggest that the government shouldn't hire slick advertising agencies. In other words, I've been reflecting about truly bad social marketing that combines cretinous readymade design with bureaucratic groupthink.

Problem #1: Nobody Does Fake Cool Worse than a G-Man

As you can see from my impressive diploma, I did well on the How Smart are You about Cosmetics Quiz. But on this FDA website, why were eighties hot pastels supposed to appeal to my youthful feminine sensibilities? The federal government also brings us Girl Power, one of the dorkiest pages for pre-teens I've ever seen. And for both genders, what about the terrible Stop Bullying Now page from Health and Human Services? Check out its almost unwatchable webisodes and half-finished theme song!

Wouldn't it be better to get youth-oriented designers, like the ones who did the Style Wars webpage, to do genuinely visually engaging sites that skip the cartoon characters? Certainly The Truth campaign against smoking uses some of this newer graphic sensibility, although one study shows that The Truth campaign, which also receives funding from the cigarette industry, can backfire by raising interest in smoking behavior.

The Truth was developed by edgy Miami ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the people who brought us the Subservient Chicken viral campaign from Burger King (and I'll admit to ordering the virtual man in the chicken suit around for hours). Despite its corporate credentials, The Truth even has its own advocacy page, Protect the Truth.

Crispin Porter was also behind the sensuous and sexy Knowing is Beautiful campaign about which the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle were extremely leery. As Crispin Porter explained the concept, "What if we made HIV testing seem cool? What if we treated it like a fashion brand?" In the year after the controversial appearance of erotically charged ads like "Couch" and "Messenger" however, the campaign switched over to middle-aged spokespeople and institutional scenes of AIDS support groups.

Problem #2: It Aint All Fun and Games, Kids

How many spleen-filled entries in the blog have been supplied by the existence of execrable kids pages from adult government agencies like the CIA, NSA, FDA, and DIA? At least regrettable kids pages seem to be in retreat on some federal websites. For example, the FDA site has recently been redesigned and has consigned its loveable mascot, a skeleton named Yorick, to farther down on their virtual masthead.

By focusing on recreation not education the government is underestimating the demands being placed on their young target audience by increasingly rigorous state standards for school projects. Children aren't going to government websites to play hangman or do word searches; they are going to .gov sites to get materials to do required reports.

Kids don't need online games; they need information literacy. Bad sites for kids without intelligent but readable information only encourages them to google their way to less reliable sources, including sources that may have just been written by another kid. Even children need evidence to support arguments in a form that invites them to learn to interpret data correctly. And they need to know how to cite government sources properly, avoid plagiarism, and cope with reports and documents designed for adult readers with big vocabularies and the patience to comb through irrelevant pages.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Julia Lupton said...

I just did the "Smart Cosmetics Consumer" quiz with my five-year olds triplets. (It was either that or watch tv with them!) They did very well guessing the answers to questions that were clearly "loaded." What an ugly site! But now I know what "hypoallergenic" means!

8:31 PM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

I'd actually recommend the Subservient Chicken site for virtual family fun, as much as it might represent yet another one of the Internet "theaters of cruelty" that I've written about. My kids got subservient chicken to do push ups, sit on the couch, skip, dance the funky chicken, roll on the ground, scratch his butt, lay an egg,and attack the viewer much to their wonder and delight.

11:16 PM  

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