By Ryleigh Norgrove
Using politics to sell is nothing new, advertising by nature taps into the desires of a captive marketplace. As we enter the holiday season, politics continue to be at the forefront of mainstream media. We are becoming systemically partisan, to the point at which we vilify the opposing team and revere our own. This deepening divide has unintended social and economic consequences. Not only does this manifest itself in petty facebook disagreements, but in the advertising industry.
In our current, image-laden society, it is nearly impossible to escape political divisiveness. Based on our society’s needs, goods are produced to fulfill these vacancies. It is the very nature of our capitalist system. But what happens when the aforementioned society thrives on political bloodshed? Is this a need inherently filled by the market, the media or a combination of the two?
Currently, it seems our society is hungry for divisiveness and an inflammatory rhetoric. This “need” is therefore met by the advertising industry. As companies draft new “socially conscious ads,” they capitalise on the negative rhetoric prevalent in our current political climate. While good-intentioned, these advertisements commodify real issues. To be deemed “socially conscious” a consumer is pressured into purchasing a product. This distracts the consumer from the severity of the issues in order to “join the conversation.” Thus, the company makes a profit.
This past year, Pepsi released an advertisement in the hopes of “starting a conversation.” It starred Kendall Jenner, and images of a nondescript protest reminiscent of the black lives matter movement. In order to appease the line of police confronting protesters, Jenner offered them a Pepsi. The advertisement received a great deal of backlash because it blatantly claims that the solution to racism is Pepsi. The ad itself placed social value upon its product. It claimed, “in order to be socially aware and participate in change, you must drink pepsi.” This claim completely undermined the struggle of african-americans in this country, all in the name of Pepsi’s profit margin. Thus, the true severity of the issue was lost.
In an economic system where virtually everything is fair game, this isn’t uncommon. Though divisive and in my opinion, unethical, “socially conscious” marketing doesn’t directly violate any laws. It does however, commodify real, tangible issues. It normalizes oppression and weakens the impact of social activism. By commodifying systemic issues, a company establishes ethos as being socially aware, and therefore can capitalise on the “socially conscious consumer.” Though it may seem like a stretch, media impacts us fundamentally: what we value, who we value and which struggles we deem most important. It is a means to commodification and reductionism.
In a world where image is everything, the desire to be seen as socially conscious has become a symbol of status. Thus the influx of inflammatory facebook posts, and an expansion of the “conversation.” People are involved because yes, to some extent they care about systemic issues plaguing society. It is apparent however, they equally care about the social capital gained from being apart of the “conversation.” It is again the commodification of issues rather than an active solution. I mean, did it really happen if you didn’t post about it?
So-called socially conscious advertising illustrates a larger shift in our society’s perception of social standing and relationships. With the advent of social media, we have become more conscious about the value of social interactions. With every like, retweet and forward, we maximise our ability to commodify social interactions. This is a reductionist trend in our society. It has become standard practice to take something strictly beautiful and weaken its value.
In the end, the only real loser is the American public. Systemically, we are losing sight of real issues. Something as small as advertising has largely impacted our society, to the point at which we commodify both social interactions and experiences.