In the contemporary United States, commercials are a cultural phenomenon. These mini films often have massive production costs and rake in serious cash for all kinds of companies. Their public reception either enhances a brand’s community or creates controversy.
Too often, touching advertisements are forgotten in the barrage of competing advertisements that litter our lives. “Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad,” reads a 2007 headline from The New York Times. Ten years later in 2017, we can only imagine the headlines that will soon point to an increased omnipresence of advertisements in our lives today.
Frequently, the existence of this ecosystem of advertisements is taken to be proof of capitalism’s wickedness. This view comes from a belief that advertisements are the concoctions of corrupt, powerful corporations scheming to make the American people into one big class of consumer addicts. The corporations depend on the American people being unable to break free from the everywhere-the-eye-can-see presence of advertisements and then respond by slavishly spending on pointless products and the latest fads.
Far from the truth, but frank enough to hit home, these claims conflate the realities of millions of businesses competing for a share in the market. It is an economic period where many Americans have historically high purchasing power.
Despite the criticisms, these claims overlook the fact that advertisements can showcase the post-WWII capitalist order at its best. In 2017 alone, dozens of commercials demonstrated that businesses and organizations—through their advertisements—have the power to draw citizen-consumers’ attention to important issues and timeless truths, an engagement with a hybrid cultural-moral-consumer education.
For example, the “Fearless Girl” advertisement from McCann New York and State Street Global Advisors depicted a bronze sculpture of a courageous young girl staring down Wall Street’s Raging Bull.
The thousands of photographs of young women standing next to the Fearless Girl, shoulders back, ready to beat the Bull at its own game, are evidence of advertising’s power to create social change.
The Fearless Girl is not alone. In 2017, many other advertisements garnered an astonishing amount of press coverage, a testament to the ability of businesses to electrify critical conversations on social issues.
Burger King’s “Bullying Jr.,” a hidden camera experiment that observed how many consumers reacted to a high schooler being bullied versus their food being “bullied,” called consumers’ awareness to bullying and elevated the experiment into a national conversation.
Another example, the Procter & Gamble’s “The Talk” was corporate America’s most important statement on race in years. It drew consumers’ attention to the conversation black parents must have with their children about the perils and prejudices of being black in America. Although the advertisement stirred up controversy, it undeniably reinvigorated the conversation about racial biases.
A few other highlights include the rapper Logic using “1-800-273-8255”, the number taken from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, to raise his follower’s awareness of suicide. And there was 84 Lumber’s Super Bowl commercial, “The Journey”, which called football fan’s attention to immigration and our common humanity. Thankfully, there’s a long history of advertisements like these that raise awareness about critical issues.
Thousands of these purpose-driven advertisements have aired, thousands more will, and all of them aim to promote certain values, catalyze conversations, and influence change. Businesses, it seems after all, are not purely evil.