The Age of Commercial Activism

| May 6, 2017 | 0 Comments

Earlier this semester, I sat in my apartment and watched my favorite sporting event of the year, the Super Bowl. I’ve watched every year the Patriots have played, and many that they haven’t, but I wondered if this time, post-Trump the game would be different. Would players stand for the national anthem? Would Lady Gaga, a vocal opponent of Donald Trump, make a political statement during the halftime show?

To my surprise, however, the most overtly political thing about the game turned out to be the commercials. By now, I’m sure most people have heard about several of them them, like the 84 Lumber commercial depicting a little girl immigrating from Mexico to the US. It was, at first, surprising. Advertisers are supposed to aim for mass appeal, to avoid controversy. These companies, meanwhile, were diving head-first into controversy in order to express their beliefs.

But were they, really? Something about the commercials continued to bother me after the game ended, but I didn’t quite have the words for it until I happened to scroll past a random opinion piece on my Facebook feed. The headline accused companies of figuring out that “social activism sells,” and I realized what had been bothering me so much about the Super Bowl commercials. Were these commercials really expressions of company values at all, or were they just what America wanted to hear?

The cynic in me says of course they’re just appealing to what will sell. That, after all, is the job of an advertiser; it would be naive to expect anything else. This may very well all be an updated version of the old adage, “sex sells;” just replace sex with social liberalism. The optimistic part of me, however, the part that wants people to be good, hopes that some of the messages were genuine. Maybe an executive out there at one of those companies really does oppose Trump’s policies and want to send a message of inclusion. The ads are, presumably, meant to be an expression of positive company values, but are they genuine, or are they values put-on to match the current social climate?

I wish it was easier to know. The world would be much simpler if we could all tell who was using charity to benefit themselves and who was being charitable out of real altruism. That, however, is not the reality we live in, nor is it likely to be anytime soon. We are therefore left with the question of how to look at such grandiose gestures of charity and goodwill. Do we immediately denounce them as disingenuous? Does true charity by nature demand no recognition? At the same time, even if the commercials are only made with the goal of making money, they are still expressing positive values. Maybe we should be happy about that and let the motives slide. Or do these for-profit expressions of protest harm us all by delegitimizing the real displays of protest and compassion around the world?

I’ve posed a lot of questions here, and, frankly, I don’t have the answers. It’s a gray area sometimes, what determines the morality of a statement or action. The greatest philosophers of history haven’t been able to agree whether it’s the motivation, the action, or the end result that matters most, so how are we supposed to? All we can do is talk, and listen, and debate, and listen some more, and maybe we’ll come up with the best solution we can. I guess I’m left with all the same questions about those commercials as before. I have a feeling that’s going to happen a lot during the next four years; the best I can do is be open to discussion.

 

featured image credit: mathiaswasik March against “I’m starting to wonder myself whether he was born in this country” Drumpf, New York City via photopin (license)

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Category: featured, Politics, Social Activism

Samantha Troll

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