Corporations are not people – or your friends

The month of Feb. is a big month for advertising. With winter continually dragging people down into the dumps and big awards shows occurring, such as the Oscars, there’s no better time to show off new products; not to mention the magnum opus of advertising: the Super Bowl. Despite the game itself being quite lackluster, the telecast of Super Bowl LII set a new record in advertising. The average price for airing a 30-second ad during the game costs 5.25 million dollars – nearly double the 2.3 million it cost in 2002.

With that kind of investment, companies need to make sure it will pay off. Two examples of ads that attempted to do so are the “A Coke is a Coke” campaign from this year’s Super Bowl and the “This is a Tide ad” campaign from last year’s Super Bowl. Both of these ads demonstrated an increasingly prevalent and dangerous trend in advertising: self-aware and faux-political ads.

“A Coke is a Coke” is a one-minute, hand-drawn animation where a series of characters pass around a bottle of Coke. Throughout the action, a narrator talks about how “he drinks Coke and she drinks Coke even though they disagree, and while the bottles look alike, you aren’t the same as me.”

The advertisement plays into themes of sharing and togetherness that the Coca-Cola Company has been trying to push in the past few years, emphasizing a kind-of 1950s-style family wholesomeness. Reading into it, however, one may begin to see its parallels to the disastrous Kendall Jenner Pepsi advertisement from April of last year, in which Pepsi tried to directly tie itself to a political movement.

Pepsi is not the first corporation to try and portray itself as political, nor will it be the last. In fact, brands are often quite political. The now infamous Cambridge Analytica developed a way to sway Far-Right voters during the 2016 election based on their preferences in clothing brands. The Jenner advertisement did poorly because it failed to recognize that the members of the protest movements it was targeting would see through Pepsi’s veil of politics and straight into its money-fueled agenda.

With these two ads, Pepsi and Coke set two poles for political corporate advertising. On Pepsi’s end, there’s the “How’re you doing, fellow kids?” style of overt political advertising. On Coke’s end, there’s the more traditional “Look pretty and do as little as possible” style of passive political suggestion. As politics becomes increasingly prevalent in the everyday lives of Americans, corporations have sought to take advantage of it in order to sell more products.

The other recent trend in advertising is the rise of the meta-advertisement, as demonstrated by the ‘This is a Tide ad’ campaign that ran during last year’s Super Bowl. These ads relied almost entirely on breaking audience expectations: first by showing a set of images associated with a product or type of product, followed by David Harbour informing the audience that the product being sold was Tide, instead of the expected product. Examples of the misleading images include a suited man driving a luxury car at dusk or a group of friends enjoying light beers on the beach. The ads don’t explicitly show why one should buy Tide over, say, Clorox. They appeal to the consumer by saying something along the lines of “we too recognize and are tired of formulaic advertising.”

Both political advertising and meta-advertising are symptoms of corporations trying to make their ads appear more human. “Like young people, we too are self-aware political beings,” they seem to say. However, many people are able to see through that veil.

The aims of most corporations are best expressed through this quote from Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger: “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement but to make money. It is often important to make history, to make art or to make a significant statement in order to make money. We must always make entertaining movies, and if we make entertaining movies, at times we will reliably make history, art, a statement or all three.”

Therein, lies the paradox of corporations doing ‘good.’ Is it actually because they want to do good for the world? Or, in the end, is it all a ruse to convince you that you need to buy a marked up bottle of seltzer and corn syrup?