How Many Assholes We Got On This Ship? Close-Reading Advertising Scandals

Awkward advertising. At best, it refers to an ad either written or placed unfortunately, creating unintentional hilarity and circulating on Tumblr for a week or so before vanishing, never to be seen from again, like this well-intentioned Turkish Airlines banner that ended up with an entirely unintended message when actually realized in the real world:

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At worst, though, it's something far more damaging and horrifying. Most recently, this was on display when H&M decided it was a good idea to dress a young black boy in a hoodie bearing this incredibly-racist-seeming message:

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Most famously, however, advertising agencies failed this past year with the following Pepsi ad, that managed to be both profoundly insulting to anyone protesting genuine injustice and an incredibly demeaning message about the goals and methods of, and resistance faced by such protests: 

It would be easy to tear this video apart as a complete artistic failure to accurately or powerfully represent what it wants to represent, between the trivializing of protests, the white savior complex it embodies, and the pathetic attempts to connect to a young demographic, but that's been done better elsewhere. Instead, I want to talk about who exactly is to blame for these incredible failures of advertising on every level.

It would be tempting to argue that these faux-pas in advertising are the fault of those who came up with them, the product of one bad egg or tone-deaf creative, and indeed the companies and agencies who produce them often act as if they were. Often in moments like this, when scandals of insensitivity or offense are brought to light, it's individuals who are fired, examples made of what becomes of them, their termination used as stand-in for a large-scale solution. This is a common trend in just about every field, in which those deeply embedded in the system excise a single part of it rather than examining problems with the broader system itself. The presented story is that this was the mistake of an individual whose removal will return the system to the happy, proper order that characterizes its normal state. 

My own personal, experience, however, points to a problem far larger and more systemic. As a copywriter working in advertising myself, I can confirm that these videos, images, or campaigns NEVER leap fully-formed from the mind of whoever comes up with them into the world that receives them. I work on relatively small clients: a couple Broadway Musicals, an auto show, nothing colossally powerful in terms of reach. Nevertheless, the ideas that I come up and copy I write are subjected to round upon round of scrutiny. They're reviewed by my direct superior, the client services team, any designers that work on bringing my ideas to life and the client themselves. Many of these people see the idea more than once at multiple points in its creation, and any of whom could at any time make changes or push the idea in a different direction if they're uncomfortable with it. This has happened before, from things as large as an entire concept and as small as a quibble over diction. For a company like Pepsi, the chain of approval is undoubtedly far longer, and should without a shadow of a doubt be just as rigorous. That such disappointing and downright disturbing advertising, in the case of Pepsi and H&M, reached the public eye, is a sign that something is deeply wrong with the processes that birthed them. Either the teams coming up with these advertising campaigns have no one on them able to recognize how these pieces of work are deeply problematic, or those people raising those concerns aren't listened to. Both of these possibilities are downright terrifying, because they represent incredibly pervasive works of art being produced by artists either unable or unwilling to actually empathize with respect, or understand the people most often consuming it. In other words: people come up with shitty ideas all the time. The real danger arises when they aren't told it's a shitty idea. 

Instead of ending with some kind of meta-analysis to back up my point (practically my entire professional career performs this analysis), I want to make a plea about just how much this matters. You see, advertising, while an often regarded as something of a compromised or second-class form of expression or storytelling, is an incredibly powerful one. Most ads are watched by more people than most movies, and even the unremarkable ones can become a fixture in our shared experience. Don't believe me? Ask the person nearest to you who Flo or the Colonel Sanders are, or what McDonald's or Burger King's tagline is, or which athletic footwear company dominates the public perception. Advertising is ubiquitous, a truly powerful force in our world that occupies as much space in our shared experience as any show or movie or book. Ads have an incredible power to shape culture, and thus an incredible responsibility to do it well, to make sure that they foster a culture worth having. When advertising offends or demeans or degrades, the effects aren't minor, the victims aren't imaginary. Just as the first gay couple or interracial couple in a commercial can be truly empowering for their real-life counterparts, Insensitive or uncaring advertising can do very real damage to the younger viewers who find themselves molded by it. If the teams producing advertising for an increasingly diverse country and world aren't diverse themselves or able to empathize with a diverse world, then they need to change. For their own sake, and ours.