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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.