I didn’t expect to get hit on during Super Bowl XLVIII.
I mean, I was expecting the usual stuff — the testosterone-fueled web hosting pitch, the adorable animals selling beer – but this was shameless. Someone really did their homework, because company after company turned up with things I like to hear: healthy families; cute biracial kids; a nation of immigrants; a thriving main street; victory for the marginalized; solving the world’s most pressing social ills. Check, check-check.
Progressive values, you are currently the it-girl for advertisement pickup artists. Enjoy it?
I, for one, do not.
Don’t get me wrong, commercials that celebrate our society as diverse and affirming are far more appealing than the advertising tropes we’re used to. But they also veil or flat-out misrepresent the structures and practices of the companies telling them. Without a significant shift towards justice on the part of these companies themselves, their social good stories shouldn’t charm us — they probably should leave us with a bad taste in our mouths.
I first noticed this disconnect last year with Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches,” a hit that went massively viral for telling women they are beautiful just as they are. It fell short, of course — its gendered and racial stereotypes are well-documented elsewhere. But after decades of advertisements written explicitly to play on women’s deepest insecurities to sell us things — the corporate equivalent of “negging” — frankly, anyone encouraging us to be gentler on ourselves was exciting. The relevant problem here? Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company that owns Axe Body Spray — whose commercials are regularly and seriously sexist and objectifying towards women.
Earlier this month, Super Bowl advertisers switched to wooing society at large — celebrating love, health, and diversity in the global village. For example: Maserati recruited Quvenzhane Wallis, the young heroine of Beasts of the Southern Wild, to narrate a vaguely inspiring speech about a marginalized David (Maserati) rising to defeat a powerful Goliath (presumably BMW and Mercedes-Benz?).
This is inherently ridiculous. But Maserati is hardly alone — increasingly, companies are representing more than just themselves in their advertisements, distancing themselves from their institutional culture or even the product they are actually selling in favor of an inspirational or empowering message about the social good. (During the same broadcast, Coca-Cola celebrated our multilingual nation; Chevrolet honored cancer survivors.) “Never mind about me,” they say. “Let’s talk about us.”
Now, there is a real case to be made that any stories that reduce harm are worthwhile and good. Stories hold power, and those that provide belonging, value, and care are sorely needed. The problem is that these storytellers are businesses. In the end, after their celebrations of global humanity have faded, what we are really worth to a company is exactly equivalent to our purchasing power. To expect advertisers to stop playing on our emotions and values altogether would be naive. But it’s not too much to demand that corporations write stories that are at least consistent with their own values and practices. So when a company like Maserati implies that it’s fighting for the little guy — well, I want to know how.
Over at TIME, Serene Jones points out that many of our public (and familial, and religious) institutions have failed to cast compelling, durable, and equality-minded narratives for some time. The void left by these traditional institutions has yet to be adequately filled. So there is real danger when companies — whose bottom line is profit, not family, faith, or the common good — begin to write our values and ethics for us. Businesses will always sell their product; this is nothing new. But even the most rose-smelling rhetoric only has staying power if the structures below it are built with integrity. And trouble arises when companies successfully situate themselves as standard-bearers for the cause of justice while continuing to operate fully within the rewards systems of Wall Street.
For me, the most jarring recent example is the temporary alliance of (RED) and Bank of America Corp., who pledged $1 to (RED) for each download of the song. Good things first: Bank of America Corp. reports donating over $3 million ($1 million more than originally pledged) towards preventing and ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. But a short five months ago, this same Bank of America wasfined for racial discrimination, faced a sex discrimination lawsuit, and had to defend itself against a fair housing complaint for ongoing neglect of foreclosed homes in minority communities . This comes on top of their highly problematic role in the financial crisis over the last few years, including charges of price-fixing, paying no federal taxes, and a host of other harmful practices . Bank of America is very publicly pledging to a good cause, but has conspicuously avoided any mention of reforming their practices that harm millions in their own backyard.
This is a textbook example of what Slovenian philosopher and perennial crank Slavoj Zizek condemns as “culture capitalism” — a dedicated effort to whitewash our economic system as “global capitalism with a human face.” Zizek denounces companies that “repair ... with the right hand what you’ve ruined with the left.” In other words, he’s not buying what Bank of America, or Maserati, or Dove is selling.
“There is no ‘them,’ there’s only ‘us,’” sings global charity pop star Bono in the (RED)/Bank of America spot that aired during the Super Bowl. It’s a lovely sentiment, but lumping me together with Bank of America in a common pursuit of justice feels slippery, not inspiring.
The true work of reform doesn’t make for great pickup lines. It is usually unglamorous, often tedious, and adverse to quick wins. In this case, social justice requires us to issue the decidedly unsexy reminder, in the face of veneered sentimentality, not to be fooled.
As consumers, we are starting to get stories that affirm our social worth and challenge our social failings. In the end, this will only reduce harm if the structures they maintain do so, too.
Go flirt with someone else, Maserati. I’m not into it.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners.