Did it get you? Did it make you feel all sad for your daughter? Did it make you want to buy an Audi because they’re so very social justice-y? During Super Bowl 51, you were fed a diet of social justice marketing, with Audi offering one of the most flagrant.
Whether you think this was a substantively persuasive pitch, too politically overt, silly or disingenuous, Audi paid a lot of money to get us to see it. Some might suggest the money would have been better spent actually paying their underpaid women, but then nobody would have known of their concern.
Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen, the TV ratings company, said, “If you make people think too much or get too serious during a game where people are really looking to be entertained, you’re taking a risk.”
That risk can pay off, though.
Sorry, kids. This was business. Pure, simple business. Whether or not Audi cares at all about daughters is irrelevant. They care a lot about selling cars.
Audi’s ad went viral before the game, having passed five million views on YouTube as of Friday. It was narrated by a father asking pointed questions about what to tell his young daughter one day as she competed in a cart race, such as, “Do I tell her that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?”
As she won the race, he reflected that perhaps he would be able to “tell her something different.” The commercial ended with text including a line saying that Audi of America is “committed to equal pay for equal work.”
Who doesn’t want to support a company that supports their beliefs? Even if it’s not enough to make you want to buy an Audi, a car favored far more on the coasts than in the red center of America where there are a lot of pickup trucks, a style of vehicle Audi doesn’t make, it puts them on your radar. That’s how it begins. If you don’t think Audi, you don’t buy Audi.
The takeaway from these hyperpolitical ads went in opposite directions. Some saw commercials like Audi’s as an indication that the company viewed America as going progressive, that this was a reflection of widespread, if not universal, support for feminism and equal pay. Others were more cynical, seeing this as pandering to a gullible population who would be inclined to conflate horsepower with girl power.
But there is another problem, lurking in the background, that helps to see beyond whatever feelz such ads raise in your passionate heart.
Companies are now attempting to outdo each other with major acts of generosity, but there’s a catch; they’ll do good as long as they can make sure their customers know about it. There is no room for humility when a brand does a good deed. They’re always Larry David and never the anonymous donor.
It’s difficult to separate the fact that while these brands are showcasing pedigree social responsibility, ultimately they are helping refugees because it sells milky lattes and cheap holiday accommodation. They can see that allocating their marketing budget to good causes has a better reach than spending that money elsewhere right now.
No advertisement reaches everyone, but if they can come up with an ad that has good reach, that plucks some emotional string in the viewer, they’ve got something. In the old days, that was sex. But now that we’ve seen more flesh than anyone can stomach, companies are forced to come up with something new. They’ve been working this angle for a while already:
For the past 12 years, Dove has smugly accepted fame for its portrayal of normal women in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Funny that they never mentioned it’s owned by Unilever, which also own Axe (or Lynx), a male brand of deodorant. TV adverts for the antiperspirant featured women with Victoria’s Secret levels of unattainable, conventional beauty.
Telling teenage girls to accept themselves while telling teenage boys to accept nothing but tanned, hairless perfection, often in the same ad break, is quite a mean game to play. But a shrewd business move. Unilever had both audiences lapping it up. Although you’ll notice that with sex not selling any more, Lynx has changed its suit. As fickle as their teenage audience, it’s followed the latest trend, which for the millennial is more activist, less sexist.
Scratch the surface and you will find pretty much what you would expect beneath advertising, a company trying to sell a product any way it can.
That’s the crux of successful marketing today: activism is in. “Our activism is currently mediated by brands,” says Will Fowler, creative director of Headspace. “Brands are allowing people to pat themselves on the back without them personally having to sacrifice anything.”
People are twitting up a storm about their feelings, without any risk of so much as a paper cut. Tapping into this market is genius for a company whose product is geared toward a certain demographic.
We’re all feeling the need to right the wrongs of today’s Brexit and Trump world – but few people are willing to actually sacrifice anything. If a brand can allow me to carry on living exactly as I was and fuel my social conscience then they can have all my pocket money.
For the less woke among you, Uber, yesterday’s darling of the cutting edge and deeply passionate, made an incidental faux pas, which could just easily have been seen as a wonderful thing to do to help airport protesters. SJWs get fickle quickly these days, and one can never tell what idea will play as the greatest thing ever or a hateful assault on intersectional protesters. This one failed Uber bigly.
Three days ago I hadn’t heard of Lyft. Not until I was greeted on Monday morning by a right-on colleague demanding to know if I’d deleted my Uber app and replaced it with Lyft. On Saturday #deleteuber had been trending after many believed it had undermined a taxi strike at New York’s JFK airport protesting against Donald Trump’s immigration ban. By Sunday, with swift marketing prowess, Lyft’s CEO Logan Green tweeted that the company was donating $1m to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Which led to Lyft’s downloads surpassing Ubers for the first time ever. They used to say sex sells; now, evidently, it’s activism.
So what should we tell our daughters? That business is business, and no matter what they feel, there will be someone trying to make a buck off it. And lest that make them sad, they’ll be on to the next thing soon enough, with all the passion they can muster.