Selling Suffering: Why The ‘Progressive’ Ad May Be Detrimental To Representational Progress.

The Pepsi ad.

We live in an increasingly polarised world it seems but nothing unites people or shall I say the internet hive-mind more like something to collectively hate on. Case in point: the infamous Pepsi advertisement that unabashedly (and oh so badly) tried to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement. To me this ad seemed like old news especially after in a unique moment of corporate conscientiousness it was pulled, thankfully. However, the Pepsi ad and all the criticism rightfully levelled makes one not only question corporate advertising’s newest arsenal to sell products by appropriating social movements but also our reactions to it. Our reactions to these ads, negative and positive, speak to our understanding and acceptance of appropriation as well. What makes one appropriation acceptable and laudable while the other one malicious and laughable? I feel it boils down to an aesthetic bias mediated by a visceral reaction. Good advertisers know how to aesthetically represent a certain social movement or dialogue that tells and shows a narrative of inclusivity which is where the Pepsi ad failed miserably but others are succeeding. The Heineken ad tried to sell beer by reducing ideological divides to just a matter of communication. The world would be a better place if we could just share a cold one till the lines between oppression and privilege blur. Drink up proletariat!

Masked as societal representations and even aspirational states of equality, these ads move us and give us a (false) sense of hope, identification and even progress. We forget that a product is being sold and gain a new admiration and respect for the brand, the corporation, capitalism itself. This kind of advertising I can’t help but feel, though massively refreshingly and comforting, is actually extremely damaging to our social consciousness. It not only numbs us to media representations but also seduces us to believe that progress is happening or just around the corner if we drink this beer, wash with this detergent, use this sanitary pad. We think that media representations will start impacting real life, life will imitate art but this is an advertisement selling an ideology to sell a brand. We, our struggles, our daily lives, our social problems are being sold back to us. The falsehood of ads pervading mass consciousness is also found in its medium, the internet. With less and less of the population watching television (that is to say, we watch what we select) and getting their news and ads from the internet, particularly, social media there is an echo chamber effect that persists. In this effect content is usually being shared by and with people who already are sensitised to the social issue being appropriated. These ads are probably not reaching the demographic they aim to raise awareness in and why should they? It is never a campaign by corporations to increase their diverse viewership of the ad but only to promote its hashtag. What is still more troublesome is that companies reduce historic social movements like feminism to ideological tropes to not only sell a product but let the social movement become synonymous with their brandscape, thus creating a kind of progressive image that will remain profitable long after the advertisement’s details have faded from memory.

Most successful examples of ads that are using social movements and equality as narratives seem to be coming from India and they are wonderfully thought out and executed. They are extremely impactful as well because India is a pioneer of social and economic progress in the region. Also as a post-colonial and developing nation, they lend a sensitivity and poise in their ad aesthetic and narrative that genuinely brings about a positive visceral reaction in the viewer. Two examples stand out, the Ariel ad that can be seen as a mass male apology to furthering the patriarchy and the Vicks ad that challenges societal norms of what a mother is and gives trans-representational which is refreshing and much needed. However, on closer inspection, aren’t these ads are still appropriating feminism and LBGTQ movements by filtering them in a socially digestible way?Purporting that gender equality can be reached if #Dadssharetheload is a great sentiment and despite the latent sexual innuendo can be a worthwhile first step towards shared domestic labour. But, I am sorry, in no way does this male apology begin to excuse or make up for the patriarchy though the visceral reaction one gets from the ad makes one want to do so. It’s a cute old man being sensitive and apologetic, it tugs at the heart strings, doesn’t it? This is what I find troubling about emotionally visceral ads such as this because they start neutralising real struggles and sanitise the work that needs to be done to dismantle oppressive systems and practices.

More so, what is troubling about this ad is that it fails to recognise that patriarchy is also detrimental to men which is a huge problem in the understanding of feminism today and why many men are so terrified to call themselves feminists. This ad attempts to show a strong woman who is “leaning in” as a victim and the father as a perpetrator of her victimhood, not as a woke ally. The tone is apologetic not empowering. The male gaze is still the only way companies are willing to to appropriate feminism within their ads. Take the Aamir Khan ad that expounds: “Success doesn’t come to a boy or a girl. Success comes to the one with the right thinking,” still sees daughters as an extension of their father and their silence in the ad is menacing.

I admit I had tears in my eyes after I watched the Vicks ad that featured a real transgender person as a dutiful and loving mother. The self reflexivity of the ad’s narrative, a young girl was moving and felt very realistic. It with no doubt is a pioneering and historic moment for trans-representation in media but it came in an easily digestible guise — mother. Though I believe this advertisement is bold and empowering it still doesn’t truly break barriers as it reduces mothering to simply feminine and shows a trans individual not acceptable as an individual themselves but serving a social production function. Imagine a Vicks ad showing a trans-community that cares for each other when they are sick with a cold using Vicks, which is the reality for most transgender individuals in South Asia but I doubt this ad would be as well-received, right?

I understand that it is impossible to navigate the complex scope and depth of social movements and equality in a minute and I’m not surprised by companies trying to profit over historical oppression of groups, neither is it new. I am surprised at our aesthetic simplification of this marketing technique. Are we willing to drop our standards of equal representation, idealogical beliefs and gender roles because something is better than nothing? Do we really believe that ads can change the world? Is a company going to to sell back our oppression to us? Can we really let neoliberal agenda control representations of social movements and equality in media?

Let’s not let ads become the new opium of the masses, shall we?

Sociologist, writer, anxious hypochondriac waxing lyrical. Believes in the power of critical analysis and pizza to unite against oppressive forces.