Pop culture representations of ideas and group identities have power to affect public perception. And in a democracy, those perceptions matter when it comes to creating public policy. That's the thesis for what you'll see in my writing here at The Daily Banter.
It's a fairly broadly held belief, as reflected in the heat and light of the commentary on Zero Dark Thirty, but it's narrowly applied by mass media. Movies certainly deserve the attention, and especially ones that warp our collective memory of how the American government betrayed its country's proclaimed values around civil liberties, torture, and due process. But while critics rightly make meals out of things like ZD30, it's also worth paying attention to the bite-sized portrayals of ideas and groups in American culture. Mad Men's Peggy Olson has a line in the first season about how good advertising works on you without your knowing it. We could probably learn something from examining the messages advertising are employing even outside the special attention that comes with the Super Bowl.
Here are three TV ads that caught my eye in the last week, and what each of them says about the companies involved and the ideas invoked:
BP is proud of itself, and utterly lacking in self-awareness
“More than two years ago, the people of BP made a commitment to the Gulf,” British Petroleum Operations Manager Fred Lemond says at the top of the latest round of damage control from the people whose oil well blowout pumped nearly five million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Fred is telling us that BP is a responsible actor in a tough situation, and just doing their best here. “Shortly after we wrought oily havoc on the Gulf, we made a commitment...” doesn't have the same ring, I guess. Hey, Fred? Maybe next time y'all should make a commitment to the ecologically sensitive areas in which you work before your negligence – and the negligence of your Halliburton subcontractors – creates an environmental disaster, and threatens the livelihoods of millions.
Actually, yeah, you're right, that does sound expensive. Probably cheaper to gamble on people's gullibility after the fact than it is to take corporate responsibility seriously. Keep fuckin that chicken, BP.
Kindle holds up gay marriage as normal – but to whom?
The architecture of this Kindle ad is pretty effective, and the politics of it are lovely. It's a decently crafted joke that sidesteps the inherent bigotry of even the most kindhearted opposition to gay marriage by hinging on the pedestrian nature of committed gay couples. (Note: I have no financial interest in Kindle or any other e-reader, and find them generally kind of stupid, in a crotchety-young-man-who-romanticizes-analog-technology way. Heavy is good. Heavy is...reliable.) I thought I remembered a tagline about how what used to seem impossible now seems normal, but that's not in the version of that ad available on the web. Also not available: full data on where the spot is airing.
I'd love to know where Amazon is running this ad, and where they're not. I caught it during an episode of Modern Family – in advertising terms, that's safe space for taking a pro-gay-marriage stand (and a profitable space for exploiting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' declared values around the definition of marriage). It's apparently also aired on The Food Network, but comprehensive data on where it's aired isn't yet available on ispot.tv. Ad Age doesn't seem to have anything on the ad, which has been airing since late February. (Ad Week noticed, but didn't have anything interesting to say about the spot.)
What Ad Age does have is an item from last fall about a Kindle ad campaign with the same kind of tagline I thought I'd seen on ABC: “What once seemed wildly impractical is now completely normal, and normal just begs to be messed with.” That ad, which featured zero normalization of gayness or of gay marriage, aired during the NFL's regular season debut matchup, in primetime. Amazon and Bezos deserve some measure of accolades for their “Husbands” ad. But no one should mistake the sensible marketing decision to pitch the Modern Family audience on queer-as-normal-folk for a courageous stand. Courage implies risk. If Kindle's spending money to put “Husbands” in front of a less targeted audience – say, pro sports fans – then that would deserve some applause.
Allstate panders to feminists
This one has apparently been around since last fall, but I just saw it over the weekend, during the nightly news. There's nothing actually all that feminist about the relationship portrayed here – the right to condescend and use 'no, shut up, you're wrong' in an argument aren't feminist goals, I don't think – but the ad still transmits a certain fistpumping girl power schadenfreude. It's got none of the subtlety of “Husbands” above, but it's playing on some of the same marketing logic: Feed people reflections of their values that are a little bit funny, and wait for the accounts receivable sheet to catch fire.
Not sure quite what to make of this one, but at the very least it says that a major American insurer sees a reductive, playful, undangerous sort of quasi-feminist portrayal to be marketable. Hooray?