The first time I went to Times Square, I was thirteen and captivated by the glittering images competing for my attention. My friends and I giggled and pointed at ads featuring our favorite celebrities. We gawked at the models sashaying across the screens in service of Forever 21 and H&M, which, to us, were totemic of trendy clothes and high fashion. As we made our way into these stores, shepherded by the awe these advertisements inspired in us, I remember marveling at how amazing Times Square was.
Before my middle-school self is judged too harshly for such a trite reaction to Times Square of all places, keep in mind that this was my first time in New York and I was still in shock that the city actually existed outside of Gossip Girl. But the reverence I felt for these ads that contained gorgeous models and beloved celebrities is, I believe, a recognizable impulse. My friends and I have gushed over new Dior ads featuring Bella Hadid too many times to count. We’ve praised Queen Rihanna while self-consciously eating Oreos and watching the Savage X Fenty show. And there have been more times than I’d like to admit when I’ve bought a shirt because it kind of, sort of resembled one Taylor Swift wore in a commercial for Keds.
While these are fashion-centric examples, any product advertisement has the potential to impact ourselves and our culture. Over just the last five years, a million memes and conversations have spawned from advertisements. Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad inspired various jokes and think pieces about celebrity activism; people were even referencing it during the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020 to make a statement about performative activism. I’m not sure what the internet would have done if the star of the Christmas Peloton commercial, the Peloton Wife, hadn’t been so terrified of the stationary bike her husband gifted her—and subsequently spawned parodies and memes.
It’s easy for these campaigns to maintain cultural relevance because advertisements have been an immutable fact of our daily lives for as long as any of us have been alive. They’ve taken up every inch of blank space in newspapers; they’ve interrupted every radio segment; they’re the soundtrack to us hurriedly using the restroom or grabbing a snack before our show comes back on; they accompany the posts that decorate our social media feeds. Some people even watch the Super Bowl solely for the commercials. I’ve found advertisements impossible to escape even when I drove through a place as desolate as the Mojave Desert—there were billboards advertising Jesus’s salvation, Best Western’s prized continental breakfast, and a Dairy Queen just off the next exit.
We know that we’re being marketed to in every corner of our lives, and this awareness has desensitized us to ads’ actual presence. It’s extremely normal for commercials and photo spreads to go viral, as if they’re revelatory pieces of art and not just a manipulative tactic to take our money. Aerie’s body diversity campaigns, which are devoid of any airbrushing or Photoshopping, continue to be praised for their "radical" approach to selling lingerie. When Rihanna came out with Fenty Beauty, there was no shortage of people commending its adverts for featuring racially diverse people of all shapes and sizes; likewise, Rihanna offers a diverse selection of make-up shades for people with darker skin tones. And, of course, in 2019, Gillette released its commercial (or “short film”) implicitly taking a stand against toxic masculinity and was met with a predictable flurry of responses––both negative and positive.
I get why these advertisements are so popular and have garnered so much conversation (like I mentioned earlier, I love watching the Savage X Fenty show), but I think where people generally go wrong is taking these ads at face value. Maybe a wealthy CEO or marketing exec really does see the value of racial diversity or thinks dismantling toxic masculinity is something that ought to be done, but once they use these beliefs as fodder to promote a product, they’ve shown where their true priorities lie. These executives (obviously) care more about making money than they do about curing social ills, otherwise a company like Fenty Beauty (which is allegedly about empowering women of all races) wouldn’t rely on child labor to make its large selection of make-up. Gillette’s commercial is all about encouraging men to be better and break free of patriarchal ideals, even if its parent company has killed and irrevocably scarred women or profited from child labor. I wonder if any of the little boys and girls exploited by all these companies saw the value in their messaging.
Ultimately, advertisements are nothing more than a way for companies to express a hollow commitment to bettering the world—exploiting viewers’ values in the pursuit of money. They aren’t meant to trigger some type of personal revelation, or even express a common good; they’re just supposed to push a commodity. And they use various artists’ energies to achieve this goal, giving various designers, filmmakers, and writers the task of making the commercials and posters and billboards that completely absorb almost all facets of public life. Just the mere fact of this advertorial inundation abstracts the creative labor behind it, thus desensitizing us to the manipulated use of creativity, which could otherwise have gone to artistic pursuits if it weren’t so difficult to make money.
“I’m frustrated with the job market and how expensive it is to care of oneself and how pitiful wages are,” an aspiring comedian/writer named Fern told me. They are just starting out in their career, and are trying to stabilize their life by taking on some side work so they can, in their words, “move out of my parents’ house…and finally start transitioning.” It’s extremely difficult to afford basic amenities by solely focusing on creative pursuits, especially in today’s job market.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, however, as creatives have long had to execute other people’s visions for profit. Catherine, a writer whose dreams of writing literary fiction were put on hold when she took a job in advertising to help pay off her student loans, is one such example; ten years later, though she is more successful in her side creative projects (which include writing nonfiction books), she still maintains a day job.
“I do make money with my creative writing, but it rarely works out to more than $10,000 a year (and that's a good year). I'm not complaining, but it's not a living,” she told me.
In a world where billionaires can fly around in spaceships while workers have to fight for a day off, it makes sense that the grueling labor we have to do to survive will erode the passion we feel for our creative pursuit— another reason why it’s not so uncommon for artistic endeavors to remain on the side. That said, having to channel your creativity into projects fueled by the motive of profit rather than a desire to make something fulfilling can be just as taxing. It’s also further evidence that in our capitalist society, if your passion isn’t commodifiable, it isn’t worth anything; the most responsible way to express yourself artistically is to do so in a way that enriches others in the process.
Billboards, commercials, and posters are all the end result of someone’s creative process, a process undertaken in the hollow pursuit of money and to convey a common ethos, thus preying on viewers’ belief systems in order to sell a product. This is a fact of the marketing industry that implicitly carries worrying premonitions of a future in which art isn’t visionary nor innovative, but homogenous and derivative.
When it comes to thinking about delegitimizing the advertising industry, the path forward involves two steps. One is increasing media transparency regarding the horrendous business practices of “progressive” companies; the other involves no longer measuring artistic value based on how commodifiable it is. If we fail to embark on either of these steps, we’ll maintain a world in which hypocritical businesses preach the values of racial diversity and people are forced to sacrifice their creative integrity to fulfill executives’ profit-driven vision. Ads have been detrimentally affecting our culture for a while now, and only by looking at them critically can we attempt to reverse the harm they’ve done.