Archive for October, 2012

Let’s keep Alan Jones

by John August

Many people, via the internet and elsewhere, have been persuading advertisers previously on Alan Jones’ program to withdraw their advertising after Jones’ latest hurtful comments against Gillard. Is this censorship ? Some people want Jones “sacked”, which would be censorship, that’s not what I’m after. I don’t want to stop him broadcasting, but I do want to reduce the financial worth of his show.

I certainly don’t agree with harassing advertisers. If we’re to claim the moral high ground, we must politely point out how we feel to advertisers, and stop buying their products if they persist with Jones – but no more. Our actions should speak for themselves, with the market mediating their effect. Otherwise, we’re subject to the hypocritical attack that bullying is somehow worse when we do it – as compared to when Jones does it – when it’s OK. Not fair, but that’s how it is – the other side have never played fair.

It’s a boycott. Originally, Charles C Boycott, after ignoring calls to charge less rent – found himself shunned by mailmen, servants, shopkeepers and others. The most well known boycott is against Nestles, for formula milk in third world countries. But, even without a boycott, we’ve always been able to buy what we want – things like free-range eggs and dolphin safe tuna.

Previously, Marrickville council chose to boycott products from Israel. Forgetting how feasible it was, it’s every councils’ choice to make its own purchasing decisions, so long as there’s a council resolution. They weren’t trying to control anyone else’s consumption choices ( which would be illegal ) – only their own. There’s no issue. And, equally, just as we can buy what we want, suppliers can sell what they want. It’s their choice. Much as those “Plain milk, no soy, no exotics, just coffee” cafes may annoy us, they can offer what like. As long as they’re not discriminating against different customers, it’s their choice.

And – ultimately – we can choose not to buy products advertised by Jones.

However, if you’re choosing not to buy something because of what the supplier is doing, it’s a good idea to tell them. Otherwise, they might think sales dropped because the wind just happened to change direction, and have no idea they can do something to improve their sales. So – again – tell them politely about what you’re doing.

Yes, harassment is bad, but at the same time using it as an excuse to stick with Jones is pretty lame. You’re justified in supporting an obnoxious shockjock, but only because people are trying to stop you ? What if people weren’t trying to stop you ? What would you do then ? It’s also no excuse to say that you’re just buying advertising, and don’t “support” Alan Jones. You don’t just buy advertising – you “buy into” Jones.

That claim has been echoed by 2GB’s boss, Russel Tate, claiming it’s a private and commercial arrangement, with advertisers only wanting Jones’ audience without seeking to endorse Jones. I don’t think so. You buy into the whole deal. Jones is a powerful persona, able to attract a loyal audience. You don’t passively buy that strength, any more than you can passively make a deal with the Devil. Identification with Jones comes as an integral part of the package.

The issue is whether 2GB should be able to make money from Alan Jones without the advertisers being held accountable by consumers. Advertisers should always be free to advertise on Jones program. And we should not waste our freedom to make an organised response.

Jones is quite a piece of work. He’s been pissing off a lot of people for a long time. Yes a democracy should be a “plurality”. But it is strange how the well resourced with obnoxious platforms and positions who spread falsehoods are the very people who hide behind the defence of “freedom of speech”.

But Jones has done more than expressed opinions. He has expressed falsehoods and caused harm. Hiding behind “freedom of speech” is a bit rich. He’s already put his foot in his mouth numerous times, and has been embroiled in numerous court cases. There’s a strong pent-up feeling, and this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. People have been complaining about Jones for as long as we can all remember – to no effect. We’ve been ignored by the station – and so have been forced to do something else. If he previously shot himself in the foot, this time he’s managed to blow away his whole leg.

In a sense this isn’t news. We all knew how Jones really felt. I’m not surprised by what Jones said. Yawn. And maybe this drip-by-drip saturation coverage progression was even less news. But the media are like a pack of wolves. They’ve found a new scent, and after pursuing their quarry, have started to circle. They’re looking for weakness, like Jones did when the shoe was on the other foot. That’s what they do. No surprise there, either.

Sure, advertise with Jones and access his audience. You’ll get some sales – at the same time as non-listeners might stop buying. And perhaps that loss will exceed the gain that Jones so kindly gave you.

Over time, perhaps we’ll start to catalogue these choices – and we’ll be able to quantify this loss and report it to advertisers. We need to make a credible case, and show just how much the dollar value of their sales has declined. If they’re concerned about sales, if they’re concerned about the value of their brand, if they’re concerned about shareholder value – they’ll have to take it on board. All very polite. No harassment. Business is business, after all.

Is this censorship ? No, it’s the market at work.

We’re advertised at. Advertisers ramp up their organisation to persuade us to part with our money. At times, we’ll even buy stuff on a false apprehension. It’s rarely an issue. Now, we’re becoming organised in reaction to the situation, participating in the market, and are more aware of our consumption decisions. Isn’t that the whole idea ? Why would anyone complain?

Still, there’s a bit more to it. If you run a restaurant, it doesn’t matter how many people refuse to eat there, so long as you can get enough Jones supporters to fill it. Some small traders will be able embrace Jones – and the market will provide. Not a problem. Leave them to wallow in the swamp … they’re welcome to it.

However, if you’re running a larger business, these relative numbers count – we’re talking about total sales over a whole city, not just how many people will fill a restaurant. There’ll always be competitors – including smaller businesses who don’t support Jones – and you’ll be using Jones to guide your customers to them.

We all know how the total Jones listenership is in fact pretty low. Jones has a disproportionate influence compared to the number of people who actually listen. Yes, yes. The Jones phenomenon. We know that.

At some point there will be a crossover, and Jones will be denied advertising from businesses greater than a particular size. If anyone wants to have a go at calculating it, let me know what it is. But, for the moment, all we need to know is that there is such a size. So, rather than running a radio “show”, the Jones’ program will become what will be effectively a private podcast, supported by advertisers who are members of his tribe. It might as well be the “podcast listeners” – and it just happens to be broadcast on AM radio rather than actually be a podcast.

It will, nevertheless, be quite an improvement. Jones and his supporters, collected together in a circle, squinting, looking at the outside world, paranoid, isolated and worried. The Jones fishbowl, only now it will be so much more obvious. And rather less profitable, too.

Actually, I never would have had a problem with Alan Jones running a private podcast for those who want to listen. Or a paper or email newsletter. No censorship, remember ?

I find it easy to believe that, with a little organisation, we can make the number of people choosing not to buy because of Jones exceed those who would have because of him – at least, for the larger firms. Now, and sustainably into the future. I dearly hope so. We’ll have to wait and see. Certainly, I’ll continue to do my bit.

Along the way many firms will have publicly distanced themselves from him. A few businesses will persist as die-hard supporters, but that’s no issue.

The market at work. Delivering better outcomes for us all. Let us all kneel before the altar of capitalism. Lovely. Facilitated by the market, our individual wills influence production decisions in the world around us, making it a better place for us all. It’s so nice when things work.

Let’s hope the market works properly in this case … Why would we expect otherwise ?

The ‘Self-Made’ Myth and Our Hallucinating Rich

In real life, working hard only takes you so far. Those who go all the way — to grand fortune — typically get a substantial head start. So documents an entertaining, baseball-themed new analysis of the Forbes 400.

Let’s cut Mitt Romney some slack. Not every off-the-cuff comment the GOP White House hopeful made at that now infamous, secretly taped $50,000-a-plate fundraiser last May in Boca Raton reveals an utterly shocking personal failing. Take, for instance, Mitt’s remark that he has “inherited nothing.”

A variety of commentators have jumped on Romney for that line. They’ve pointed out that Mitt, the son of a wealthy corporate CEO, has enjoyed plenty of privilege, everything from an elite private school education to a rolodex full of rich family friends he could tap to start up his business career.

On top of all that, the young Mitt also enjoyed $1 million worth of stock his father threw his way to tide him over until big paydays started arriving.

Not quite “nothing.” But no reason to pick on Mitt either. Most really deep pockets, not just Mitt, consider themselves entirely “self-made.” The best evidence of this predilection to claim “self-made” status? The annual September release of the Forbes magazine list of America’s 400 richest.

Each and every year Forbes celebrates the billionaires who populate this list as paragons of entrepreneurial get-up-and-go. The latest top 400, Forbes pronounced last week, “instills confidence that the American dream is still very much alive.”

Of America’s current 400 richest, gushes Forbes, 70 percent “made their fortunes entirely from scratch.”

Forbes made the same observation last year, too, and most news outlets took that claim at face value. Researchers at United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based group, did not. UFE analysts stepped back and took the time to investigate the actual backgrounds of last year’s Forbes 400. They released their findings last week, on the same day Forbes released its new 2012 top 400 list.

The basic conclusion from these findings: Forbes is spinning “a misleading tale of what it takes to become wealthy in America.” Most of the Forbes 400 have benefited from a level of privilege unknown to the vast majority of Americans.

In effect, as commentator Jim Hightower has aptly been noting for years, most of our super rich were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

In its just-released new report, United for a Fair Economy extends this baseball analogy to last year’s Forbes 400. UFE defines as “born in the batter’s box” those Forbes 400 rich who hail from poor to middle-class circumstances. Some had nothing growing up. Others had parents who ran small businesses.

About 95 percent of Americans, overall, currently live in these “batter’s box” situations. Just over a third, 35 percent, of the Forbes 400 come from these backgrounds.

Just over 3 percent of the Forbes 400, the United for a Fair Economy researchers found, have left no good paper trail on their actual economic backgrounds. Of the over 60 percent remaining, all grew up in substantial privilege.

Those “born on first base” — in upper-class families, with inheritances up to $1 million — make up 22 percent of the 400. On “second base,” households wealthy enough to run a business big enough to generate inheritances over $1 million, the new UFE study found another 11.5 percent.

On “third base,” with inherited wealth over $50 million, sit 7 percent of America’s 400 richest. Last but not least, the “born on home plate” crowd. These high-rollers, 21.25 percent of the total Forbes list, all inherited enough to “earn” their way into top 400 status.

Last year, a rich American had to be worth at least $1.05 billion to make the Forbes 400. This year’s entry threshold: $1.1 billion, the highest ever.

, the United for a Fair Economy researchers sum up, has glamorized the myth of the “self-made man” and minimized “the many other factors that enable wealth,” most notably the tax breaks and other government policies that help the really rich get ever richer.

The narrative of wealth and achievement that Forbes is pushing, the new UFE study adds, “ignores the other side of the coin — namely, that the opportunity to build wealth is not equally or broadly shared in contemporary society.”

And many of those who do have that opportunity — like the mega millionaires in Boca Raton who applauded so warmly when Mitt Romney asserted he had “inherited nothing” — see absolutely no reason to turn that coin over.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online Institute for Policy Studiesweekly on excess and inequality. 

My yard, my candidate: the social psychology of lawn signs

As the November elections draw nearer, front yards across America are sprouting campaigns signs broadcasting their chosen political candidates.

These lawn signs have been a traditional part of politics in the United States for well over 60 years, and have remained commonplace even in the age of Facebook and other new media. Lawn signs can often feel ubiquitous in the build-up to major elections, yet in actuality most Americans don’t display them. However, more than enough voters are posting signs for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on their front yards – and apartment balconies and businesses and dorm windows and roadsides – to keep the tradition alive and well.

Some communities seem to be a sea of signs all supporting the same candidate, perhaps with the odd sign here and there that defiantly displays a contrary opinion. Other communities are more divided politically, and in places such as these lawn signs are a critical way of showing just what side you stand on. Yet whether people live in an area that is strongly in favour of one party or one that is more contested, displaying a lawn sign is more than just campaigning for a specific politician, doing one’s civic duty, or even conforming to neighbourhood norms.

Lawn signs are also about communicating our group membership to others, something that fulfils some very basic psychological needs. People want to feel accepted, and putting up a lawn sign literally symbolises that they are part of a group. What’s more, they gain strength from their group memberships and symbols. For example, Chris Miller at the University of Minnesota found that after the 2008 election, signs supporting the victorious Obama stayed up longer than signs supporting his defeated opponent John McCain. This suggests that people use lawn signs to “bask in the reflected glory” of their group’s success and “cut off the reflected failure” of their group’s losses. Thus, lawn signs can help us feel accepted and feel good about ourselves.

Yet despite their widespread usage and the psychological advantages just described, whether or not lawn signs are effective in winning elections is not clear. For presidential campaigns, lawn signs are all about social influence: capturing the all-important swing voters and motivating supporters to actually turn up at the polls come Election Day. Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence supporting that lawn signs can achieve these goals. However, recent research from the Attitudes and Group Identity Lab at the University of California, Davis, indirectly suggests lawn signs can be an effective source of social influence, though that this effectiveness may depend upon how far away the election is.

With my collaborator Alison Ledgerwood, we found that temporal distance – whether something will happen in the near future versus distant future – influences the degree to which people are affected by majority opinions versus single individuals. In our experiments, undergraduate students read about proposed changes to a political issue that they were told would go into effect in the near or distant future, as well how the majority of other students ostensibly felt about these changes.

When the changes were expected to occur in the distant future, our participants’ own opinions on the issue were more influenced by group opinion; that is, they conformed to the majority. But when the changes were expected to occur in the near future, participants’ opinions were less susceptible to group influence. These results complement findings from an earlier paper by our lab that suggest as events draw nearer in time, people are more influenced by the opinion of a single individual.

But what does this mean for lawn signs? As the election is currently over a month away, a large bloc of signs for Obama is likely to have more of an effect on a person’s vote than a lone sign for Romney. However, as the weeks fly by and the election draws nearer, a single sign on a specific person’s yard may start to have more of an effect.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that large numbers of signs for one candidate will ever be meaningless, even if Election Day is close. Distance affects the information people attend to for a reason: distance can lead to abstract, big-picture thinking (“why”) whereas proximity can lead to concrete, fine-details thinking (“how”). Even as the election draws close, encouraging people to think about the big picture can put them in an abstract mindset that pays more attention to the majority of lawn signs.

Thus, there’s more to lawn signs than tradition and a candidate’s name. It’s not simply an issue of which side has more signs posted, but also the mindset of the person viewing the sign. And lawn signs may not only help the candidate, but also may help the person posting the sign meet some of their basic psychological needs.

Not bad for laminated cardboard.

Shannon Callahan is a Social Psychology PhD student at University of California, Davis

First published online at Online Opinion


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