Ad profiling and hostile performative identity

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I've had two radically divergent experiences with internet advertising. On one hand, certain sites (and email teasers) are suspiciously good at showing me ads related to things I've searched for or even just written about in an email. But on other sites, in contrast, the ads generally show me things that don't fit me at all: jewelry, perfume, women's dresses, industrial hosing, machines for mass-production of paper bags, point-of-sale systems, cosmetics, …

The second kind of sites are mostly magazines, newspapers, scientific journals, etc., and so I figure that those ads are just the same mostly-not-for-me things I might see in old-fashioned paper issues from the same sources. But some of the badly-targeted ads don't fit that narrative either — for example, this one, which has popped up for me, multiple times, in several different on-line publications recently. Here's a sample sighting, with a bit of the (totally irrelevant) textual context:

The t-shirt pictured in the ad reads:

How else can I piss you off today?

This raises the question of what I've done to make some ad-targeting system conclude that I'm interested in buying a t-shirt to Own The Libs in this particular way.

But there's a more interesting question, namely why this particular kind of hostile performative identity has become so popular in American politics.

Expressing identity through clothing has doubtless been a thing ever since clothing existed. And expressions of social identity, in clothing or otherwise, are to some extent exclusionary. Sometimes that inclusion-by-exclusion is explicit — a Philadelphia Eagles cap signals affinity with a local team, while a "Dallas Sucks" cap identifies an Eagles fan by hostile reference to a long-standing rivalry. The anti-Dallas caps are more likely to be seen around the time of Eagles-Cowboys games, but they work for an audience that includes only Eagles fans.

In politics, more and more people apparently agree with the position expressed in Bruce Thornton's 2019 essay, "A Case for Ridicule: Reason is wasted on the unreasonable":

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley told a high school audience that conservatives shouldn't delight in "owning the libs"–that is, triggering a progressive into a hysterical response that you proceed to mock. Instead, we should be persuading them with reasoned argument and "bringing people around to your point of view," Haley said, thus making a convert rather than energizing partisans into clinging even more tightly to their beliefs and voting accordingly.

Having spent more than forty years in universities, the incubators of today's leftist nonsense, I am skeptical about the power of reasoned argument among today's ill-educated students. Most of their teachers, like most progressives, are largely immune to reason, evidence, and coherent argument, little of which makes it into their courses. As the old gag goes, arguing with a leftist is like playing chess with a pigeon: the bird knocks over the pieces, craps on the board, then struts around as if it won the game. Reasoned argument cuts no ice when confronted with the irrational caprices and gratifying passions of human beings.

I have the impression that one aspect of this trend is not politically symmetrical. "Triggering a [political opponent] into a hysterical response that you proceed to mock" seems to be an increasingly common hobby for (some people on) the right-hand side of the political spectrum. On the left, not so much.

For example, an image search for {how else can I offend you today} turns up hundreds of t-shirts and coffee cups, from a wide variety of sources, with a lot of textual and stylistic variety — and all but three or four of them are clearly presenting stereotypical right-wing attitudes aimed at offending stereotypical non-right-wingers.

Though people across the spectrum enjoy mocking their opponents, the mockery from the left is (I think) mainly aimed at providing one-sided amusement for their own side, without any right-wing audience involvement.

This may be because the word (and concept) "triggering" is to some extent associated with a wider range of "snowflake" liberal attitudes.

Still, there are certainly some left-to-right triggering attempts



  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 6:42 pm

    Perhaps these things go in long generational cycles, so what may be asymmetrical at a given moment is symmetrical in the longer run? In the first hippie-magic-realist novel by Tom Robbins (Another Roadside Attraction, published 1971), there is a character who goes by the assumed name "Marx Marvelous," which, by simultaneously evoking Communism and homosexuality,* was self-consciously intended (this is explicitly explained within-narrative as the character's subjective rationale for the name choice) to "trigger the non-libs," to use non-1971 jargon for the subjective intention. 1971 was also the date of the debut album by the pretty good British rock band the Pink Fairies, whose name was likewise self-consciously chosen to evoke the exact same Communist/Homosexual combo for "trigger the non-libs" purposes.

    The actually-existing Communist regimes of 1971 did not in reality tend to have particularly quote unquote progressive policies on gay rights, but this was perhaps a detail lost on these Western cultural provocateurs attempting to epater la bourgeoisie.

    *Persons significantly younger than myself (and I am younger than Prof. Liberman) may not necessarily follow why the adjective "marvelous" was in context thought of as an obvious "tell" of homosexuality. Hopefully there are historical sociolinguistic reference works that can explain this with appropriate scholarly footnotes as may be necessary.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 7:18 pm

    But for a 2023 instance of "hostile performative identity" from the "other side" of current political alignments, consider the recent headline "‘We’re Coming For Your Children’ chant at NYC Drag March elicits outrage, but activists say it’s taken out of context."

    C'mon man, can't you uptight squares recognize a lighthearted joke when you see one?

  3. Haamu said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 8:04 pm

    For the moment, I'll resist the political angle (other than to note the obvious — that an essay suggesting only leftists are unreasonable is itself taking a pretty big crap on the chessboard).

    But over the past few months, I've been getting plenty of ads for non-political t-shirts saying things like "Mess with my [wife, grandchildren, whoever] and they'll never find your body" and other similarly warm sentiments. Exclusionary identity is certainly nothing new, nor is overt pre-emptive hostility, but it does seem like the pairing is trending upwards. And since consumerization of any trend is always a lagging indicator, it has probably been trending upwards for a while.

    What seems genuinely new here is the impact of internet advertising. Classically, advertising is supposed to aim at generating positive feelings about a product. Modern web advertising, though, is aiming at something altogether different: clicks. And clicks, it apparently turns out, can be generated by being revolting, annoying, hostile, or simply inscrutable — and I'm sure each of us can cite examples of ads we're constantly seeing in each of those categories.

    Were you actually to click through to the t-shirt site (and by no means do I recommend doing so), my guess is you'd see all manner of shirts, with the hostile political spin de-emphasized or entirely missing.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 8:17 pm

    @Haamu: Were you actually to click through to the t-shirt site (and by no means do I recommend doing so), my guess is you'd see all manner of shirts, with the hostile political spin de-emphasized or entirely missing.

    Although I didn't mention it, I get plenty of memetic t-shirt ads that are not political, though many of them are at least plausibly targeted at me, e.g.

  5. Seth said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 8:44 pm

    I think there's something of a myth nowadays that all Internet advertising is super-duper-ultra micro-nano targeted, due the trendy obsession over the topic. In reality, that sort of targeting comes with commensurate higher cost (not the least because all the analytics involved has a cost). Thus there's plenty of advertisers who will accept lower targeting for lower cost. That is, the advertising market has a range from higher cost narrow audience to lower cost broad audience. If, just hypothetically, someone fits all the categories of "white, straight, male" (so the only wrong match would be "Republican"), then it can be worthwhile to just lose that percentage of the audience rather than pay much more not to show them the ads in the first place.

    Regarding "hostile performative identity" – aren't you neglecting such history as political buttons, bumper stickers, etc? More social media just means more opportunity for this to be manifest.

  6. Kimball Kramer said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 9:16 pm

    Most, by far, of the targeted ads that I get are for items that I have just purchased—mostly from Amazon, but from other sellers also. I can't figure out why they cannot tell that I have already purchased the items, or, if they can, why they expect me to buy a duplicate.

  7. JPL said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 9:20 pm

    "…why this particular kind of hostile performative identity has become so popular in American politics?"

    Having a constantly ready predisposition to interact with other people with antagonism seems like not a nice way to live one's life. Why do people choose to face the world with that attitude and essentially waste their one chance at life? (Even the Declaration says "… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." What happened to the pursuit of happiness, which would seem to be a positive endeavour.) "The world is wonderful" vs "the world is all out to get me". As Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway said, "Where is the love?" The puzzle of our times.

  8. AntC said,

    July 16, 2023 @ 11:45 pm

    @Hammu Modern web advertising, though, is aiming at something altogether different: clicks.

    Huh? The website gets income from you clicking. But if the site you click through to doesn't make any sales, the 'commission' they pay for the click is wasted money.

    You'd'a thought that with all this micro-nano targeted (@Seth) analytics they'd figure out the clicks were only subtracting from their bottom line.

    At least, I hope it is: that thought is what makes me click through on some of the wildly mis-targeted spam. Also I'm aiming to bugger the algorithms in the hope they'll just give up.

  9. Haamu said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 12:34 am

    @AntC — I didn't mean the clicks were directly monetized by the sellers. I meant the goal of the ad is to get you to arrive at the seller's site (by clicking through on the ad) so they can engage you with a sales message and possibly take your money. Yes, if you click, they have an expense, but if you don't click, they have zero chance at revenue. (I.e., the clicks aren't "only subtracting" unless the clickers are all like you, trying to bugger the algorithms with no intention of purchasing.)

  10. Lukas said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 1:54 am

    ""Triggering a [political opponent] into a hysterical response that you proceed to mock" seems to be an increasingly common hobby for (some people on) the right-hand side of the political spectrum. On the left, not so much."

    I think that might be because it's just unnecessary and thus largely pointless. Populist right-wing positions have already become parodies of what a lot of people would consider reasonable right-wing positions. When Republicans accidentally ban the bible in schools because they're trying to ban books portraying same-sex relationships, the mere concept of "triggering them into hysterical responses" seems completely meaningless.

    You don't have to wear a "I'm trans, how else can I upset you today?" T-Shirt when people start yelling at women using women's bathrooms because they just happen to have a short haircut and look kinda tomboyish.

  11. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 5:24 am

    One aspect to be aware of is that you may not appreciate the triggerworthiness of some of the messages if you tend to agree with them.

    For example, even the T-shirt that Mark posted above may be interpreted as somewhat triggering: "Act your age" (says the insufferable conservative [straw man]) — "No. Your request is comedically illogical."

    It's interesting that, for some reason, the image on the relevant Wikipedia page is anti-Bush:

  12. David L said,

    July 17, 2023 @ 9:23 am

    On a non-political front, one site that I sometimes visit (to play solitaire games and the like) frequently presents me with an ad for diabetes medications. In Spanish. I can (just about) see the reasoning that people who spend all day playing computer games might be more likely to have diabetes, but I've no idea where they get the idea that I'm hispanic.

  13. Amanda Adams said,

    July 21, 2023 @ 1:27 pm

    Maybe you're looking at the wrong t-shirt? Many years ago I first found myself at Language Hat by following some random link of the "7H3 M345UR3 OF 1N73LL163NC3 15 7H3 481L17Y 70 CH4N63 -4L83R7 31N5731N" sort. It wasn't that text, but it was that sort of "code" or something similar.

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