A recent ad for the InterContinental hotel brand, a lush video set in London, features an interview with Kathryn Sargent, the first woman master tailor to open her own shop on Savile Row. “The whole experience of making a beautiful garment for someone,” Sargent tells the camera, as she expertly marks a piece of wool, “empathy is at the heart of that.” The video is titled, for YouTube purposes, “Stories of the InterContinental® Life Presents: Empathy—A Bespoke Connection”; it is accompanied by the “Rewards of Empathy” episode of InterContinental’s podcast, which features another discussion with Sargent and culminates in, as the episode’s notes put it, “a chat with a pair of philosophy experts about the rewards of empathy in our daily lives.”
Hotelier, atelier, the Rewards of Empathy—you could, certainly, question whether an observation about suits makes full sense as an observation about society. But that, of course, would miss the point. “Empathy” has been ported over from psychology and moral philosophy to become an ethic of the moment not because of its literal meaning (strictly, the experience of—and the ability to experience—the feelings of others), but because of its broader connotations, in a time so anxious about civility, and inequality, and inclusivity, and ethno-nationalism: To invoke “empathy” is to insist that the stuff of human connection will triumph over the stuff of everything else.
Which is probably why it is being used, so commonly, to sell stuff—and why InterContinental has a good deal of company in its attempt to reap the Rewards of Empathy. Apple concluded a recent ad with a call to “open your heart to everyone.” Starbucks capped its “Year of Good” TV spot—a commercial that quantifies all the social good the company did over the year 2016, from the hiring of 8,000 veterans to the funding of more than 300,000 ethically sourced farms—with an entreaty to “Be Good to Each Other.” Amazon touted the human-connective capabilities of its vast warehouse (and the religious pragmatism of kneepads) by featuring a priest and an imam playing out a wordless, piano-tracked version of a modern-day O. Henry story. Hyatt featured scenes of people initially divided, suspicious of each other, until, as the tempo of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” crescendos, they come together, joyously, as the tagline “For a World of Understanding” pops up onscreen.
It’s a sentiment shared by another recent ad, one whose voiceover insists to its viewers, “We can be one. And all it takes is the willingness to dare.” It was an ad for Cadillac.
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Heady promises, warm feelings, better things for better living—it’s on the one hand the extremely typical stuff of ads, so longstanding an element of commercial messaging that we can safely assume that Neanderthals, once they realized they could rent out space in their caves, spread the news about Lairbnb via grunted renditions of “We Are the World.” But when InterContinental summons the InterPersonal to sell its hotel rooms (or when Cadillac summons the same to sell cars; or when Expedia airs ads celebrating the aiding of refugees; or when Honey Maid, maker of graham crackers, airs spots promoting cross-cultural understanding; or when Panera, the fast-casual purveyor of Bacon Turkey Bravo® Sandwiches, adopts as its tagline, “Food as It Should Be”), what is being invoked is not merely blithe aspiration, cultural ideals fit to be transformed into corporate profits. The ads are, instead, profoundly political. And they are explicitly moral. They are making claims not just about what we should buy, but about what we should be.
And so, this moment of anxiety and creativity and cultural fracturing and political engagement and political apathy has brought a slight plot twist to the long and winding story of American advertising: It has gone and grown a conscience. The commercials that are ascendant at the moment are selling not just what ads so long have—power, prestige, beauty, glamour, sex—but also, more broadly, a vision of how those things can serve society. They are substituting claims about what is desirable for claims about what is right. They are using their particular bully pulpit to moralize and sermonize and offer up, in the end, that most American of reassurances: that a better world can be achieved, because a better world can be bought.
The global ad firm J. Walter Thompson recently conducted research into Americans’ attitudes toward commercial brands that take stances on political issues. In a cross-generational group of respondents, 88 percent agreed with the firm’s proposition that corporations have the power to influence social change; 78 percent of them agreed that companies “should take action to address the important issues facing society.” And Millennials were particularly pro-action. As Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at JWT, summed things up to me: “In these times, actually, it’s becoming more important for brands to take a point of view.” Not just because brands have the power to effect change, but because people want them—expect them—to use it.
It’s an insight on display in ads that conclude with entreaties to “open your heart to everyone”; it’s also on display in the spate of recent commercials that have functioned as overt (if also sometimes covert) political advocacy. During the 2017 Super Bowl, Airbnb aired a spot—and an accompanying hashtag—featuring a series of different faces flashing onscreen as a background to text that read: “No matter who you are … no matter where you’re from … who you love … or who you worship … we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” That ad aired on TV around the same time as the Budweiser commercial that celebrates immigration. And the 84 Lumber ad that (maybe?) did the same. And the Audible ad that features Zachary Quinto reading a line from Nineteen Eighty-Four: “If he were allowed contact with foreigners … the sealed world in which he lives would be broken.”
The spots are subtle in their messaging; they operate with enough ambiguity to allow for a kind of plausible deniability. (“We all belong” is both stridently argumentative and, seen in another way, entirely meaningless.) But the ads are doing what JWT’s research suggested brands should do, to win converts: They’re taking a stand, and an expressly political one. It’s hard not to interpret the Amazon ad featuring the priest and the imam, wordless though it may be, the way The Daily Beast did: as “a total repudiation of Trumpism.” It’s hard not to read something similar into Samsung’s Super Bowl ad for its virtual-reality technology—the one that aired VR footage of Donald Trump’s inauguration followed immediately by footage of the women’s march on Washington. And the Expedia spot that follows a woman around the world, as she aids refugees? The company arranged the ad’s premiere, tellingly, to drop during CNN’s coverage of the new president’s inauguration.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, and then silkscreened onto a t-shirt you can buy on Amazon: Everything—politics, protest, feminism, the ephemeral warmth of interpersonal connection—will get commercialized, in the end. We buy the products; we are the products; that those two facts are intimately bound up in each other is part of the agreement American culture has made with its unique kind of capitalism. Brands will be #brands, and all that; Starbucks serving extra shots of empathy along with its caramel macchiatos is in one way simply another extension of the #brand-being.
It’s notable, though, that morality-via-marketing is trending during a time that has also brought “fake news” and “alternative facts” and general epistemic panic to the minds of many Americans. Public faith in “the media” and its institutions is, at the moment, extremely low, in some part expressly because that media and its institutions have engaged in the kind of subtle sermonizing these ads are now engaging in. And companies, at the same time, are more powerful than ever: Facebook has more users than the most populous country in the world. Its CEO has recently been talking like a presidential contender. “It used to be that brands, by definition, tried to play it safe, or be apolitical,” JWT’s Lucie Greene told me. Now, she said, “we’re looking to brands to be some sort of port in the storm.”
We used to look to other things to anchor us as the world churned. And we still, to some extent, do. But what does it say about us—the “us” that the commercials assure us we still can be, together—that brands are now helping to fill that role? What are we to make of ads that engage in the kind of discourse once reserved for pulpits and art and books and op-ed pages? When marketers act as arbiters—of goodness, of rightness, of us-ness—does that suggest something profoundly optimistic, or profoundly cynical, about what it means, at this moment, to be 🇺🇸 to each other?
Here’s a case for optimism: You could see such commercials as responses to a situation that finds Americans more politically empowered than they have ever been before. Susan Strasser, a historian of American consumer culture, told me that while, on the one hand, today’s expressly political ads have a long precedent in the U.S.—see Kellogg’s co-optation of Roosevelt’s Square Deal in 1913—they are also, at the same time, very much of their time. They take for granted the fact that today’s citizens can make their voices heard not just at the voting booth, and not just at the protest march, but also on social media. People can easily, and instantly, become part of a movement or a boycott. (As Strasser pointed out, “We’re all pretty quick to say, right now, ‘Yes, we’re going to Nordstrom,’ and ‘No, we’re not doing Uber.’”) So while brands can shape public opinion, in the way #brands have always shaped public opinion, they are also shaped by it. Producer and consumer describes an economic reality; it also describes an economic tautology.
That mutuality—the expectations people have for companies not just to sell us things, but to sell us ourselves—helps to explain the new trendiness of ethical sourcing, and fair trade, and the rise of the b-corp, and Chipotle’s decision to print literature on its burrito bags. It also helps to explain why empathy itself has become so popular of late, as a commercial ethic as well as a moral one—a fitting corollary to authenticity and inclusivity and other aspirations that are helping to shape the culture of the moment.
Empathy is with us not just in ads, but also in subtler ways, through snack bars announcing, “nice to meet you, we’re KIND®”; and social scientists researching whether reading fiction can engender empathy; and socially conscious coders spending time in “empathy bootcamps”; and Mark Zuckerberg vowing to go on an empathy tour of the country—the 2017 version of a “listening tour”—following criticisms of fake news’s complicity in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Michael Schur, the creator and showrunner of the NBC sitcom The Good Place, told The Times that he wanted the series to explore how to live one’s life in a “self-sacrificing, empathetic way.” An episode of the new podcast Missing Richard Simmons featured a long meditation on the connections between empathy and therapy, attempting to coin the term “empathist” in the process. The American Girl franchise recently released the WellieWishers, a collection of dolls distinguished visually by their wearing of rain boots, but rhetorically by the fact that they are, as the company’s website puts it, “a sweet and silly group of girls who each have the same big, bright wish: to be a good friend.”
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It’s become something of a cliché to compare this American moment, fraught and fractured as it is, with the 1960s. Some of the chaos of those years, in the United States, arose from television and the particular kind of empathy it enforced: Here, for the first time, were scenes of war, moving and real, brought to people’s living rooms. Here, too, were grave injustices and the protests against them, rendered in sound and image rather than text alone.
And here, at the same time, were companies grappling with how to sell things both through and in spite of TV, during a time that found many Americans deeply yearning to transcend their desire for things themselves. While the counterculture of the American ’60s seemed to be defiant of American commercial culture of that time, the journalist Thomas Frank has argued, the two were in fact deeply intertwined—so deeply, Frank writes in his 1998 book The Conquest of Cool, that the counterculture gave rise to “a new species of hip consumerism, a perpetual motion machine in which disgust with the falseness, shoddiness, and everyday oppressions of consumer society could be enlisted to drive the ever-accelerating wheels of consumption.”
It was during this time that Volkswagen, automaker of Nazi Germany, was cannily rebranded with ’60s-friendly insouciance through a series of ad campaigns that emphasized irony, and knowingness, and a wink-nudge approach to car-buying. It was during this time, as well, that Avis ran ad copy reading, “They’ll probably never run this ad.” And that Chivas Regal breezily informed potential customers, as they browsed the pages of Life magazine, “Don’t bother to read this ad.” It was a time in which the real-life Don Drapers of war-weary America—jaded, canny, hungry—realized they could harness the era’s widespread mistrust of consumerism to encourage, yes, rampant consumption.
So that’s the more cynical read on the ads of today, messages that smarm and tug on heartstrings and generally put the “sell” in the celebration of human connection. You could read Apple and Amazon and Airbnb and their ilk as being engaged, just as their predecessors were, in a kind of purposeful collusion. You could place them on the through line that gave American TV audiences of the 1960s footage of hand-clasping hippies singing upon a hilltop, their thirsts quenched by Coca-Cola, and, later, that gave viewers of the 1980s spots that invoked Orwellian philosophy to sell personal computers, and, later, that found “Benetton ads” serving as shorthand for a world desperate to see itself reflected in its commercial media. You could group them, too, with the recent Campbell’s ads starring a toddler and two doting fathers (hashtag: #realreallife), and Kohl’s ads using an interracial, same-sex couple as their models, and Mattel ads featuring a boy playing with a Barbie doll, and Oreo, master of social media, making waves (and gaining fans, even those who don’t enjoy chocolate or “creme”) with its “pride cookie.” You could see them all as progressive messages that share a convenient conviction: that the right side of history can often double as the more lucrative side of history.
And you could read the ads as reflections not just of their cultural moment, but also of their technological one. While the counterculture of the ’60s came about in part because of technology—the television, that cool medium that became so very heated—the 2017 version of that era’s love-ins and be-ins has arisen in part, perhaps, because of our own technological revolution: the one that has come by way of the internet and its communications platforms. Blogger and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Snapchat and the like are technologies of, yes, empathy. They have given people unprecedented access to each others’ inner lives. They have meant that a country that was recently bowling alone is now also bowling with everyone, at once. Companies understand that. And they are using that understanding to do what companies always will: to make profits.
So, yes. Here is kindness, commodified. Here is that old standby of the classic ad campaign, the clever tagline—“Tastes great, less filling”; “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking”; “Breakfast of champions”; “Don’t bother to read this ad”—replaced with more broad-minded entreaties toward empathy. Here is the logic of “Just Do It,” transformed from a vaguely libertarian message into a vaguely liberal one: “We All Belong.” And here are marketers recognizing that, while a diamond may be forever, even more enduring is the ineffable human connection that has allowed hunks of carbon to be invested with romantic allure in the first place. Love isn’t just “what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.” It’s also a mechanism through which advertising can exert its influence.
In 1951, the ever-prescient Marshall McLuhan released The Mechanical Bride, a collection of essays about the increasingly powerful advertising industry, grouping it with the increasingly powerful news media. The subtitle of his book was Folklore of Industrial Man. And it was, of course, a fitting one. Ads are the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. They are nakedly self-interested, which is also to say extremely honest. So when InterContinental insists that buying a hotel room doubles as an endorsement of empathy, that is revealing—not just about the brand, but about the rest of us. Just as it’s revealing when so many other commercials make the same rhetorical move. If the broad cultural struggle of the 1960s was the preservation of the individual against the threats of conformity, the struggle of the current moment is, perhaps, the preservation of community against the threats of individualism. Ayn Rand is all around. Selfishness tempts and taunts. Empathy is the easy and obvious solution—the moral rebuke—to that. And Hyatt, after all, is completely correct: What the world needs now, as always, is love, sweet love. The question is what it says about that world, and its current occupants, that a hotel brand is the voice trying to remind us of that.