Advertising is a medium designed to sell something. Whether a business, a product, or an idea, advertising is used as away to convince you, the viewer and consumer, to buy something. The most traditional way this was done can be seen in the propaganda-style advertisements of the 50s and 60s: drink this beer, you’ll be classy; buy this fridge, be the perfect housewife. While perhaps blatant to us now, old advertisements tell us what was believed at that time. It may have become more subtle, but modern advertisements basically do the same thing. Companies have changed language from blind consumerism to something more in line with modern day values: values of social justice and diversity.
It’s no secret that social justice is very “in” right now. Many more people are now politically active and aware of what’s going on around them. As people spread round ideas of diversity, equality and inclusion, business are sitting up and starting to take notice. Once fringe and radical, these political thoughts are becoming mainstream, putting them in a perfect position to be co-opted by corporations for profit.
Therefore, we can see adverts beginning to dip their toes into something vaguely political. It is common to see an advert go viral because it depicts a same-sex couple or a Muslim woman, and even more common to see an advert go viral because it messes up its depiction of a same-sex couple or Muslim woman. We all remember the infamous “Kylie Jenner stops all police brutality with Pepsi” advert. But despite the backlash these adverts can get, by talking about it and criticising them, these adverts and the brands they represent stick in your brain. As the cliche goes, there’s no such thing as bad press. If social justice is popular and talked about, then it makes good business sense to utilise that for free advertising and clicks, no matter the cost.
Now I’m not saying that diversity in adverts is bad, and they should go back to depicting only a middle-class white heterosexual lifestyle. It is just important to recognise that it makes good economic sense for business to diversify their representations of people in order to appeal to their increasingly diverse base of consumers. People like to see themselves reflected in what they consume, and business can see that by reflecting this, they are able to appeal to a wider audience. However, it is important to question this shift towards radical politics within something inherently capitalist and market-driven.
By co opting ideas of social justice, advertising is inherently de-politicising it, taking the bite out of radical thought. Body positivity originally questioned the need for women to be beautiful and uphold certain white western standards of beauty in order to be respected. But when beauty companies, such as Dove, got a hold of it, this political thought was diluted to “all women are beautiful!” Advertising flattens political ideas into the most simple and easiest solution, promoting diversity but failing to meaningfully challenge the status quo or promote structural change.
Companies never would challenge anything because it’s not their place to. Because the goal of advertising is not to change the status quo but to make money. Advertising cannot be radical because to be radical would be to jeopardize their chance at turning a profit. It is foolish to uphold anything seen within advertising as anything meaningfully political and to do so is to cheapen real political action.
This is especially egregious when a business presents itself as ‘woke’ when its own business practises are at best shady and at worse harmful. Dove may say that it supports all women looking beautiful, but in reality it is part of a larger corporate conglomerate that also owns Lynx, who portrays women as rewards for men who use their body spray. Nike promotes diversity for those wearing their shoes but will still use underpaid and mistreated workers to make them. It’s hypocritical and highlights how these adverts do not really care about these issues, but takes a shallow rendering of them to grab people’s attention and broadcast their own name. The support for a cause is dependant on whether it would be profitable, not because of any sort of altruism.
Capitalism by its very nature can and will turn anything into a product, something to be consumed for a profit, and this includes ideas. Political action and thought, if deemed profitable, will be chewed up and spat out by big businesses in a desperate attempt to appeal to the majority and make money. These ‘woke’ adverts are growing in popularity, and in the process they are diluting and de-politicising the social justice issues they claim to represent in order to sell a product. Because that’s their real goal. Not representation, not solidarity, not radicalisation. All these adverts want is to sell you a product, and they will sell it with half-baked political ideas if necessary.
[Jo Reid – @_jomreid]