New book by Terence E. McDonnell – Best Laid Plans: Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns

Congratulations to section member Terence E. McDonnell on the publication of his book Best Laid Plans: Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns. The book came out in August 2016 with the University of Chicago Press.



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.


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 in 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)


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