You have to wonder what David Foster Wallace would have said about the #likeagirl commercial.
In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace diagnosed a change in the way advertisers sold things to Americans through television. Classic ads, he wrote, were all about the group: they featured crowds of people having way more fun than was even possible, and all holding the same (for instance) bottle of soda. The implication was that you, too, you lonely individual, could be in the fun, ecstatic group if you simply purchased the same bottle of soda.
What does it mean to connect respecting women to a certain brand of tampon or a particular bottle of shampoo? What does it mean to connect human rights to a hamburger, or religious freedom to a chicken sandwich?After the fall of Nixon and the rise of cynicism that Watergate inspired in the general population, ads became self-referential, obscure, and ironic, selling us things while winking to us, as if to let us know that we were all in on the joke. “For to the extent that TV can flatter [the average viewer] about ‘seeing through’ the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values, it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it’s taught him to crave,” Wallace writes.
The cynical ads of the ’80s didn’t ask viewers to feel anything — instead, they recognized our awareness of corporations’ attempts to sell to us, and they pitched parody, inviting us in on the joke. Viewers could all pretend that they were so cool they’d been jaded about stuff since they were, like, four.
But advertising geared towards Millennials, who value passion, sincerity, and social justice, is a whole new ball game. The #likeagirl ad from Always is the perfect example of a new kind of idealistic ad that invites us to — as they say on the internet — FEEL ALL THE THINGS.
In the ad, we see men and women who appear to be auditioning for roles in a TV spot. The director instructs them to “run like a girl” or “fight like a girl” or “throw like a girl.” The women follow the directions with wimpy, mocking motions. Then younger girls come on stage, and when given the same directions, they run and throw and fight with heart.
The ad asks, “When did doing something ‘like a girl’ become an insult?” and proposes that we “re-write the rules” and make “like a girl” “mean amazing things.” The final screen requests that we “champion girls’ confidence at always.com.”
In the days after the ad premiered, many of my friends tweeted about it and shared it on Facebook. I put off watching it, though, until my Dad emailed it to me. As I finally watched the ad, my eyes filled with tears. I wasn’t alone: the ad struck a nerve with a lot of people, and has been viewed 21 million times since it was posted to YouTube.
“Like a Girl” is just one of the latest in a recent wave of ads marketed to socially aware millennials. Like other recent ads from Pantene, Burger King, and Dove, this ad seeks to attach a brand to a social movement, and in doing so to create warm fuzzy feelings in viewers that will cause us to purchase their products. Many of these ads are marketed specifically to women and use social messages about a woman’s worth to try to sell skin and body care products.
(Do you catch the irony there? Always says that a girl’s confidence plummets during puberty, and they want to change that. But what causes this dip in self-esteem? Isn’t it, in large part, the advertising industry and companies that sell skin and body products?)
I closed my computer after watching the video, but I kept thinking about it. Can an ad like that change the world? Should it?
I see a number of problems that arise when a product is attached to a social movement in advertising.
1. Arbitrarily attaching a product to a social message ultimately weakens the message.
What does it mean to connect respecting women to a certain brand of tampon or a particular bottle of shampoo? What does it mean to connect human rights to a hamburger, or religious freedom to a chicken sandwich? If our products become “synecdochic of identity,” as David Foster Wallace wrote, then what kind of identity do we have left?
2. Attaching a product to a social message lets us off the hook.
Supporting a company like Always, Dove, or Burger King because of a commercial whose social message we appreciate allows us to forget the many ethical complications that exist within every corporation. But more importantly, it encourages us to believe we can flourish as humans by purchasing the correct thing, rather than by engaging in relationships with the humans around us. Tweeting a link to the Always commercial allows me to appear supportive of women’s rights even if I’m engaging in mommywars gossip at the park. Wearing my fair trade scarf from another country allows me to showcase my care for the underprivileged even if I continue to avoid relationships with people of diverse socio-economic neighborhoods in my own city.
Certainly it’s possible to do both — to buy the product and to be engaged in the social issue on a personal level — but sometimes, doing one allows us to neglect the other. These ads may offer some good, but if that little bit of good allows us to forget about the weightier matters of justice and mercy in our own daily lives, we have a problem.
3. Attaching a product to a social message flatters us for our ethical superiority and right values.
These ads work in the same ways that the Gen X ads of the ‘80s worked: they appeal to the “canny superiority” we’ve been taught to crave. Where the ads of the ’80s made viewers feel cool for being cynical and not caring too much, these ads make us feel cool for how socially aware and ethically responsible we are. Stroking our own egos isn’t exactly a Christian activity. If we’re flaunting our agreement (or disagreement) on hip social issues as a way to build our platforms, rather than out of a true, thoughtful desire to see change, maybe we need to back up and consider our motivations.
4. Attaching a product to a social message makes us believe we can change the world by being better consumers.
They tell us we are among the righteous, the rebels, the ones who know the truth. We can change the status quo. We can do it by buying pads.
Can ads change the world? One gay rights activist, speaking in support of the new Burger King ad, says they can. “Whenever a company comes out in support of gay people, it makes a difference,” says Jordan Bach, a consultant to corporations on gay rights issues and a GLAAD media partner. “But when it’s done right — when it’s done with a campaign that shows the company understands diversity and really believes in the profound acceptance of other people — that sort of marketing can change minds and hearts at the deepest level.”
At the deepest level?
We’ll never save the world through consumption. Sure, we can (and should!) make socially responsible and ethically aware choices with our money and support messages that we approve. I’m all for avoiding clothing made in sweatshops, buying fair-trade coffee, and eating animals who lived happy lives. Heck, I’ll probably even purchase Always the next time Aunt Flo visits. But we should never be tricked into thinking that ads exist to do anything other than sell us things, and we should never start to believe that being better consumers is the key to building a better world.
Maybe millennials ought to hold on to a little bit of the cynicism of Gen X. The whole of justice and mercy, of heart and mind transformation, won’t be accomplished through advertising, but through relationships. We need to remember that becoming better consumers doesn’t necessarily make us better humans. Buying the right tampon won’t topple the patriarchy, and eating the right hamburger won’t change a person’s heart.