Category Archives: advertising

The ethics of TV ‘experiments’

Macon, over at Stuff White People Do, picked up on the ABC show “What Would You Do?“, specifically an episode on racism in public settings and how people respond. It is in some ways reminiscent of some early ‘instigation research’ where researchers purposefully instigated some conflict to see how people would respond.

Macon tackles the issues of racism and white apathy, so I’ll largely leave that aspect to him, even though it is germane to this blog also.

Beyond that obvious issue, however, the concerns I immediately hit upon were those of human subjects in a research setting. All research that takes place which involves human subjects must be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). IRBs function under the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP), which basically is checking to be sure that researchers are not doing anything unethical, as in the classic Tuskegee Siphilis Case (which ran from 1932 to 1972 and, interestingly, the last widow to receive reparation payments after the Tuskegee case just died about two months ago). So if all research has to have oversight when human subjects are used, several questions arise about what the host of this TV program describes as an “experiment”:

  • Who approved this ‘study’? Does it have any IRB oversight?
  • Have they even thought about informed consent? Doubtful considering how upset several participants were.
  • What about debriefing? Every time I watched the film crew follow one set of people out on the street to do a post-interview, I wondered about all the other customers who were not interviewed and debriefed and who just slipped out the side and wandered off into their lives, unaware that what they’d been through was a con.
  • What about the effect on people of color? This ‘experiment’ is ostensibly to see how people would (or would not) respond, but people of color have no need to have this sort of store-front racism shoved in their faces since they are, in fact, living this reality every day.
  • Were participants compensated for their time, their discomfort, their trauma?

One of the questions IRBs consider when looking at a potential piece of research that involves human subjects is whether it stands to increase knowledge. Aside from the fact that most all people of color can testify that this is the reality in stores everywhere, upscale or down, there is also quite a lot of research that shows this as well. So what do we learn from ABC’s ‘experiment’ that we didn’t know before?

Another IRB question is whether a given piece of research does harm. Watching the responses by some participants (and only the ones that they chose to show, even thought the voiceover cites ‘more than a hundred’ people they filmed), I think it’s fair to say that, yes, it did harm: many people were really upset with what they witnessed. And what about the people who left the store but didn’t get caught by the film crew…. many of them may be left with the idea that this behavior is acceptable and appropriate, especially by someone with authority (the store security guard), because that’s what the silence of bystanders encourages.

And by silence of bystanders, I mean both the white people in the store who said and did nothing, but also those people accosted by the film crew who said and did nothing to stop this sham.

Unfortunately, the silence of bystanders is one of the strongest reinforcements for bullies, domestic and dating violence perpetrators, and people everywhere who would hold power over others.

This is the reason why all schools should be talking about talking: what do you say or do when you see or hear bullying? If we’re not talking about it in schools, youths grow up to be the callous adults who say nothing in episodes of “What Would You Do?”, as well as in the pre-production meetings of shows like “What Would You Do?”, as well as in their day-to-day lives.

So how are we talking to youth about their moral and ethical responsibilities to each other in our culture?

Boys of Color

The Rand Corporation, subcontracted to the California Endowment, has released a big study of inequities for boys and young men of color in California. Much of it is statistical evidence of what we already know: compared to white boys, boys of color have much lower educational attainment, grow up around more violence (exposure to violence outside of the home? Latinos are 2.1 times, African-Americans are 3 times more likely (p.19)), are more likely to die by homicide (Latinos are 5.1 times, African-Americans are 16.4 times more likely (p.19)), are more likely to be incarcerated (Latinos 2.1 times, African-Americans 5.5 times more likely (p.19)), have worse health (PTSD? Latinos are 4.1 times, African-Americans are 2.5 times more likely; HIV and AIDS? Latinos are 3.1 times, African-Americans are 6.9 times more likely), etc. etc. etc.

So much for a post-racial country.

These boys and young men are growing up in a world dramatically different than what the average white boy grows up in. Which is not to say that no white boys grow up like this, nor to say that all boys of color grow up like this, just that many more boys of color grow up like this than white boys, and these boys tend to struggle in school.

Teachers have, off and on, been known to write off some of these students: “I can’t get to him,” “he’s just too disruptive for my classroom,” or “if his parents are not going support his schooling and homework and studying, what can I do?” I am not arguing that there are not cases of students who simply cannot function in school, but many of these ‘excluded students’ can be taught, just not necessarily in the way their school functions. Many of these excluded students are students of color, judging in part from the statistics in the Rand Corporation report.

Learner-centered teaching and other related theories over the past couple of decades have talked about changing teaching dynamics to meet more students where they are (also see Howard Gardner’s theories), and this Rand Report echoes some of these changes in education:

Learning Using Non-Didactic Approaches. A final example of a practice that is represented among many of the effective program models is the recognition that participant learning should take place through experiential approaches, such as role-playing, rather than through didactic approaches, such as straight lecturing. (page 26)

One of the reasons we need to fund our schools fully is that, once we make the needed repairs to the physical structures of many schools so they are physically safe places, we need to focus on supporting teachers in redeveloping curricula to meet students where they are. In Teacher Man, Frank McCourt talks of having five classes of forty students each, and a 200 student load is simply too much to allow a teacher to give students feedback on their work, challenge each student appropriately, and return work in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, too many of those boys of color are being taught by this sort of over-worked teacher who can barely keep up with the grading and testing requirements, let alone engaging each student individually.

When “the Market” runs the school

Over the years, there have been lots of examples of corporate interests making their way into classrooms. Teachers are well familiar with the posters oh so kindly donated by companies which plug their products in one way or another, or even go so far as to steer the politics of teaching.

Is this just the way schools get materials today, since we can’t seem to find the resources to fund our schools fully? Should we see this as schools getting the job done by whatever means necessary, or is it more nefarious than that? Even though, in states like Maine, soda and candy are being banned along with the advertising for them, there are more than enough loopholes to drive a delivery truck through. At the school where I taught, when the ban went through, they changed the sign at the athletic fields from a Pepsi logo to a different Pepsi brand. Inside, the soda machines were stocked with other Pepsi brands, from water to juices, but it is still a Pepsi brand on the side of the machine. Why does the school keep them at all? Because the distributor pays the school a portion of the profits from the machines.

There are also lots of other examples of corporate interests trying to create ‘brand loyalty’ at a young age and pushing their products. There are even companies set up to market to kids in schools. What, then, is needed, is media literacy and getting kids thinking about ways to understand what they see around them and the motives behind that, especially as online marketing to kids gets more and more sophisticated.

But what if the corporate interests in the classroom are not so obvious as that Proctor and Gamble poster trumpeting the glories of their products? In the world of pharmaceuticals, many drug companies are paying universities for research on their drugs. This, in and of itself, is fine, but what happens when they pay the university to create a course based on their products? Several years ago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health started coursework around the benefits of hormone therapy, even though a clinical trial had actually been halted five years early because of the dangers of this therapy. For six years, doctors took this online course that was sponsored by, you guessed it, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the makers of the hormone drugs! Now that someone asked questions about it, they’ve halted the course, but how many students (in this case doctors who will then go treat patients based on this information) were given information that is not only wrong, but potentially deadly to women who undergo this therapy?

There are plenty of subtexts here about how our culture values women (this sort of thing never seems to happen in clinical trials of men, or white people, does it….), but we need to find more effective ways to be sure that education is a completely free-standing institution that presents lessons based on the best information available, no matter if it’s 2nd grade or medical school.

American Apparel

Dov Charney is a sexist lunatic who is given huge amounts of power by virtue of being the CEO of a hundreds-of-millions of dollars a year company. He founded American Apparel and seems to have the business acumen to keep it rolling, although I do wonder if it’s the corporate version of a Ponzi scheme and once it stops growing at 100% or more each year, it’ll catch up with itself and fold under its own weight.

But until then, Charney likes to dismiss domestic violence (contrary to all available evidence, he seems to think that nearly all DV is perpetrated by women). Charney likes to have sex with employees. Lots of them, and the models for their photos too. He doesn’t seem to grok that as the CEO, he has an enormous amount of power in the company and no employee under him should be expected to be able to make any decisions that do not take that power into consideration. He still claims these are consensual sexual acts.

Is it any wonder that American Apparel advertisements are criticized as being pornographic? I won’t even bother you with the link to the most pornographic AA ads, but suffice to say, collected, they are over the top.

So where do conversations about companies like this happen? Young people are buying this stuff, and a lot of it, and they continue to be the target of their marketing. Where are responsible adults talking to their kids about what these advertisements are actually selling? Can we have these conversations in schools? Because if we don’t, then people like Dov Charney will continue getting away with everything they do and making monster piles of cash off it…

h/t to Womanist Musings for the original post that got me looking at this. My response there was the start of this post….