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Best Laid Plans

Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns

Best Laid Plans

Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns

We see it all the time: organizations strive to persuade the public to change beliefs or behavior through expensive, expansive media campaigns. Designers painstakingly craft clear, resonant, and culturally sensitive messaging that will motivate people to buy a product, support a cause, vote for a candidate, or take active steps to improve their health. But once these campaigns leave the controlled environments of focus groups, advertising agencies, and stakeholder meetings to circulate, the public interprets and distorts the campaigns in ways their designers never intended or dreamed. In Best Laid Plans, Terence E. McDonnell explains why these attempts at mass persuasion often fail so badly.
            McDonnell argues that these well-designed campaigns are undergoing “cultural entropy”: the process through which the intended meanings and uses of cultural objects fracture into alternative meanings, new practices, failed interactions, and blatant disregard. Using AIDS media campaigns in Accra, Ghana, as its central case study, the book walks readers through best-practice, evidence-based media campaigns that fall totally flat. Female condoms are turned into bracelets, AIDS posters become home decorations, red ribbons fade into pink under the sun—to name a few failures. These damaging cultural misfires are not random. Rather, McDonnell makes the case that these disruptions are patterned, widespread, and inevitable—indicative of a broader process of cultural entropy.

264 pages | 38 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2016

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Media Studies

Sociology: General Sociology


Best Laid Plans is well written with smart analysis and presents a useful theoretical lens that will surely find wide application. Highly recommended.”


“McDonnell provides powerful insights into cultural entropy that systematically undermined the effectiveness of AIDS campaigns in Ghana. . . . The verbatim quotes, many pictures and posters, vignettes, and personal experiences make Best LaidPlans a well-written book. It is appropriate for graduate students in public health, sociology, psychology, communication, and media studies. It is also an important read for health educators and health workers across the globe who work for health promotion and interventions. This book also provides much important information for entrepreneurs who use advertisements or campaigns to persuade clients.”

Social Forces

“An eye-opening read for anyone engaged in health communication and public health.”

Medical Anthropology Quarterly

“McDonnell opens an important and necessary door in this book. It is one that culture scholars (even the most ardent nonmaterialists among them) should consider following him through.”

American Journal of Sociology

Best Laid Plans compels us to question how nonprofits, governments, and corporations manipulate meaning. Whether it is the public health campaigns in Ghana promoting HIV prevention or the promotion of political candidates or branded commodities, we find conflicts between the meanings marketers want to convey and the understandings the target audiences privilege. This book offers a biography of public relations campaigns that have largely missed their mark and asks why. How do meanings, practices, and audiences interact to promote behavior change? And why do audiences use products and services in ways that the marketers did not intend? The answers are surprising and the explanations strong.”

Frederick F. Wherry, Yale University

Best Laid Plans makes a significant contribution to sociological scholarship about AIDS, combining global, cultural, and organizational sociology. McDonnell’s main theory of cultural entropy is useful beyond the case of AIDS campaigns in Ghana. Scholars of culture will find it a helpful concept for understanding how culture is received, taken up, and used in innovative and sometimes subversive ways. This is a smart, innovative, and compelling book.”

Claire Decoteau, author of Ancestors and Antiretrovirals

“Materiality has moved squarely to the center of sociological inquiry thanks to McDonnell’s pathbreaking work. ‘Cultural entropy’ and ‘taking cultural objects as objects’ extends our theoretical understanding of socio-communicative processes, while McDonnell’s acute readings of urban landscapes and mediascapes offer an entirely fresh view of cities in all their semiotic multiplicity. This book changes the way we see the world.”

Wendy Griswold, Northwestern University

Table of Contents

1 Cultural Entropy
2 The Cultural Topography of Accra
3 “Best” Practices
4 Imagined Audiences and Cultural Ombudsmen
5 Displacement and Decay: Materiality, Space, and Interpretation
6 Scare Tactics: Interpreting Images of Death, Illness, and Life
     Methodological Appendix: Social Iconography


ASA Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology Section (CITAMS): Best Book Award
Honorable Mention

ASA Sociology of Development Section: Sociology of Development Book Award
Honorable Mention

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