Has anyone else noticed this disturbing trend? Superstar profs doing ‘research’ in TV and web adverts

Witness Daniel Gilbert, superstar psychologist of TED fame, starring in adverts for Prudential:

And the rather less well known Adam Alter, who’s an assistant professor at NYU Stern,

Weirdly Robin Dunbar, he of Dunbar’s number, starred in a Guinness advert which has now been taken offline:

Screen shot 2014-02-13 at 10.30.18
Any other examples? This appropriation of the trappings of research within adverts seems to be matched by a trend towards ‘research’ in TV programmes themselves.

12 responses to “Has anyone else noticed this disturbing trend? Superstar profs doing ‘research’ in TV and web adverts”

  1. I don’t see the problem with these ads. In fact, in the second ad, the original research is cited at the end. It seems to me that both ads are actually trying to get people to think about their future in a serious fashion, given that we may be living substantially longer than our parents. This may or may not lead people to alter their insurance policies but insurance is certainly an appropriate context for thinking about such matters. Perhaps you’re worried that the ‘research’ depicted is simply simulated? My guess is that it’s based on ‘real’ research (and hence the particular academics involved) and what you see on the screen is meant to be comparable to ‘historical re-enactment’. Maybe you know better, but I hope your response isn’t a case of that lethal cocktail of academic high-mindedness and contempt for the presumptive stupidity of the masses who aren’t clever enough to understand what’s presented to them on television. After all, this is not 1964 but 2014. Advertising is simply catching up with its smartened audience.

  2. You really think the only reason some could find that worrying is “that lethal cocktail of academic high-mindedness and contempt for the presumptive stupidity of the masses who aren’t clever enough to understand what’s presented to them on television”?

    I find it worrying because it indicates an incipient commercialisation of public engagement before it has even been securely embedded, at least in the UK. I find it worrying that someone like Robin Dunbar would, in effect, sell his and the university’s name to Guinness in pursuit of strengthening their brand identity. This advert was much worse and clearly wasn’t based on ‘real’ research. It was trappings of research ‘conducted’ for the advert. You may be right about research being ‘re-enacted’ either way I find your contention that from an insurance advert is an “appropriate context for thinking about such matters”! kind of baffling. Usefully so in fact, as it’s good prompt for me to reflect on exactly what my issue is with this…

  3. First of all, I haven’t seen Dunbar’s ad, since you said it’s offline. So I’ll judge that once/if I see it. But the two other ads are fine. I happen to like the fact that academics are fronting these ads because it makes the trail of accountability clearer. If you object to the claims being made in the ad, then you know who to blame! In any case, research has featured from Day One of television advertising. However, usually the academics have been presented anonymously (in white lab coats) or have been completely offstage. For example, I’m sure some academic did some sort of research to determine that Pepsi and Coke taste differently, but they were never credited or blamed in the many ads that dealt with these products. Now at least the academics stick their heads above the parapet, and people can judge for themselves. Also people can now see how research informs the choices they make in consumer culture. And frankly, unless the audience frequents transhumanist conferences, I’m not sure that there is a more immediate way to get people to endure a 90 second didactic presentation (i.e. the first ad you posted) to consider the implications of longer lives than in the context of insurance policies.

    Why should the heavy presence of academics in these matters be hidden? It’s like trying to act as if your parents don’t have sex! Of course, some academics may find the whole ad business unseemly, but the morality of this is on a par with people who refuse to go into bed with an attractive suitor: Standards vary…. That’s one of the implications of autonomy, which is a hallmark of academic freedom. The burden of proof rests on those who would claim that one’s academic freedom is compromised by the publicity and payment that he or she gets from providing these services. But that is a case that needs to proved, not presumed, in particular cases. Do you equally object to the academics who cooperate in films that generate several times more money than any of these ads? If anything, academics should be more upfront about all this stuff.

  4. So essentially you’re saying that professors starring in commercials is empowering? For both the professors and the audience?

  5. In principle, yes, but it will depend on how people respond. It’s true that if there’s a lot of puritanical scare-mongering about the corruption of academic values, then that could be enough to discourage academics from getting more involved in these commercial ventures (at least as the front people). But I’ve been always one of those people who believe that you can’t get to socialism unless you make your way through capitalism. In this respect, I’m very close to the original Marx, not the holier than thou types who travel under his name who have had the benefit of imagining that the university might be a safe haven from ‘commercial’ considerations.

  6. I typed a long reply which Wordpres unfortunately lost. The nub of it was:

    empowering to whom? Underlying your argument about public amenability to these adverts is exactly the “contempt for the presumptive stupidity of the masses” you accused others of earlier. Underlying your claim about this being empowering for researchers is, I can only assume, an individualistic ontology which looks in terms of individual researchers ‘being empowered’ as they take such an opportunity. Right? That’s the only sense I can make of that argument i.e. empowering to researchers as such, rather than looking at the wage relationships and institutional contexts within which the category of ‘researchers’ can be unpacked to reveal all manner of hierarchies which the superstars going on adverts will likely intensify.

  7. Perhaps you think about this matter more as an ‘economist’ than a ‘political economist’. Yes, I agree that a permissive media environment for academics to do commercials may lead to a greater income disparity among academics, since most academics (for whatever reason) are likely to be judged ‘not ready for prime time’. But if you look at, say, http://www.edge.org, which includes many of the more glamorous academics, the younger ones are often untenured and not likely to get tenure simply on the basis of doing commercials, TED talks, etc. Regardless of their overall income and access to celebrity status, these ‘overexposed’ (as you might say) people may end up remaining marginal in academia itself.

    However, ideally academia would avoid this prospect by routinely training its postgraduate recruits to become media-savvy in a positive, and not merely negative sense. In that case, TED-friendly academics would not be regarded with such prima facie suspicion. In other words, in public interventions, academics should be less concerned with misrepresentation of research than saying something that sticks closer to their target message than had they not spoken. To be sure, I am presupposing that academic research provides an authoritative basis for sending a public message – a decision that is best left to the particular academics in particular cases (i.e. many may not wish to be involved).

    Nevertheless, I tend to think that academics are too precious about how their message is received in public, which is perhaps an artefact of their having overestimated how seriously they are taken in the first place. The bottom line is this: There should be a larger pool of academics capable of distilling their research into soundbites and commercials, simply because that is the most efficient form of democratisation available to a capitalist society. Any problems with ‘quality’ can be sorted out by the market, assuming that clients are exposed to a sufficiently wide range of ‘content providers’.

    If ‘academic freedom’ means anything these days, then it means trusting academics to decide whether and how they wish to participate in the mass media. Foreboding talk about the horrors of an ‘individualistic ontology’ is really beside the point, and frankly is inimical to academic freedom, which does not require a labour union – even of academics – to decide what one can say in public, with or without remuneration. Sure, not every person who is ‘academically free’ in the formal sense has access to the media facilities that would get their message across to the widest range of people. But whose fault is this? If you associate the idea of academic ‘freedom’ with ‘liberty’, as I do, then your indefinite license to express your views obliges you to try as hard as you can to get those views across – NOT to pre-empt your own and other people’s efforts with semi-empirical claims about how the hegemonic structures of capitalism inhibit people, blah, blah.

    I do not doubt that universities fail to provide sufficient training for academic recruits to acquire, let alone exploit ‘academic freedom’ to their advantage. But that is the level at which all this high dudgeon about academics in commercials should be addressed. It is simply a failure of advanced academic training. Yes, capitalism has its very considerable problems, but it is the vehicle through which whatever glorious socialist future will be reached. So academics should learn – and be encouraged — to translate their long-term concerns into 30-second soundbites.

  8. HI Mark,
    This is an interesting discussion between you and Steve. What you’re discussing here publicly is something that we don’t often address publicly in sociology, which is our internal normative values. What are the unspoken rules about how we should use and promote sociology? What is the best way to promote sociology? What is harmful to our professional image? Let’s take a detour looking at psychology since the two embedded videos on your post feature psychs.

    Psychology has a longer, or perhaps a more visible, history of commercial ventures than sociology. In some ways, psych has a stronger public image specifically because they have engaged the public imagination through popular media and because psychology sold itself as an applied practice which has influenced many institutions. At the same time, its relative popularity has led to much public confusion about what psychology is and what it isn’t. Ludy Benjamin published a nice piece on this in American Psychologist in 1986 that I think applies. Benjamin argues that individual psychologists went out into the world and established a branch of pop psychology that sells easy answers to complex problems of the mind. This elevated the “brand” of psychology, but also hurt it in some respects. Benjamin notes that by the time the APA decided to take control of psychology’s public image, a lot of damage had already been done that could only be addressed through collective practice, led by their professional organisation.

    Sociological practice is more diffused. We have national professional associations but we don’t have to be accredited to practice. Each association has its own set of ethics. These don’t mention whether or not we should participate in commercials or similar popular media ventures. But it is implicit in the way we are taught to be critical of the media and of advertising that sociologists probably shouldn’t participate in commercial advertising. We need to make this explicit: why is this an unspoken norm?

    These particular ads on insurance are relatively innocuous in the sense that no one is being endangered, directly oppressed or exploited via these particular commercials (though we can make comments on the state of public health, inequalities in access to life insurance alternatives and so on). I don’t like the way the science is depicted simply because it’s not especially scientific nor is the research especially interesting. Selling life insurance is not something I’d do. But other than having a personal dislike of this product, I need to dig deeper as to why I wouldn’t use sociology to sell life insurance.

    I really dislike the idea of social science being used to sell alcohol because, although I do drink on occasion, I see that alcohol use is a public health matter requiring stronger public education.

    Your discussion here presents two divergent views that sociologists may personally hold, but we don’t really debate openly as a profession. What are the boundaries for commercial ventures?

    Many years a go, Herbet Gans made the point that sociology is adverse to market research, but we don’t really have proper insights into how it’s done. Is market research done better or worse with a sociologist present? These ads make specific social scientists accountable as Steve points out, but I’m not clear if the research cited was commissioned by the life insurance company, or if it has been “borrowed” to sell the product. Is it empowering to the profession to have sociologists out there in the public eye taking on different ventures? Yes in the sense that we need to better market what sociology is and what we can do. Yes if the research is good and the product/service is not harmful. But what are the caveats?

    Sociology needs more public exposure, of that I am certain. Do commercials hurt or advance this cause? Under what circumstances? In some ways, given that we don’t have a strong public image, this is a great time to be talking openly about what we should and should not be doing to sell sociology. As you noted Mark, Steve’s response has pushed me to think about why some commercial ideas make me uncomfortable, while others leave me ambivalent while others still feel wrong. Do we need collective guidelines and if so how do we enforce them?

    Our discipline has long been talking in circles about public sociology: what is it, how do we classify it, how do we do it? Here’s a clear example that needs stronger applied discussion. Thanks for starting this conversation. You’ve both given me much to think about.

  9. Hi Steve, it’s possible to agree with the vast majority of what you’re saying here (I do) and yet still find the participation of academics in infomercials deeply problematic. Leaving aside the empirical questions (which I’m surprised you dismiss – it gives me flash backs to being in political philosophy seminars before I moved to sociology) there’s an outright contradiction here:

    i) To be sure, I am presupposing that academic research provides an authoritative basis for sending a public message
    ii) Any problems with ‘quality’ can be sorted out by the market, assuming that clients are exposed to a sufficiently wide range of ‘content providers’.

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood you but I don’t see how (i) can be tenable if (ii) is true. Leaving aside all the stuff about the academic labour market (which I find sociologically interesting but politically worrying – I entirely agree with your first paragraph) my point is that participation in these adverts, as a general trend rather than individual instance, will tend to erode whatever authoritative basis academics in general have for sending public messages. Robin Dunbar et al are getting employment in adverts because their authority isn’t established on market terms – unless we assert the autonomy of the intellectual sphere, we’ll see a gladwellization of public engagement which (as far as I’m concerned) completely defeats the point of it.

  10. “Our discipline has long been talking in circles about public sociology: what is it, how do we classify it, how do we do it?”

    I’m very much of the opinion we should just do it rather than talking about it all the time. But I don’t see any sense in which a sociologist getting paid to take part in an advert is public sociology. It’s just someone trading on their established authority to get work in advertising. I don’t particularly begrudge anyone who does it but it’s not a viable strategy at a disciplinary level and it undermines things which are.

  11. Agreed on the let’s just do the public sociology part. I’d prefer a collective effort on popularising/marketing sociology. I feel our professional organisations are dragging their feet on this, so I hope this changes soon.

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