The next evolution of this idea is a tricky one, but important: Can the revolution ever occur while a society still lives within the confines of ubiquitous media? We certainly know by now that upheaval can occur. Violence and tumult can occur. All of that can certainly be televised. The question is, within a maze of messaging and manipulation, what will ever measurably change?
Engagement is every company’s fuel in 2020. They’ve told you turning it off isn’t an option, because when you’re on the right team, you’re fighting for justice 24/7. Staying silent is literally described as violent. They’ve explained you must stay involved, connected, wired, in order to be right, in order to oppose evil, in order to bring about change.
Ever notice the Apple TV doesn’t come with an option for a “black” screensaver? Racist? No, it’s just not a feature a tech/media giant would be inclined to offer you. (In order to black out the screen and listen to music, you create a shared photo album, add a black photo to it, connect to that shared album, and select it in the Apple TV’s screensaver settings. Not a “low friction” interaction.)
Why wouldn’t their UX designers think of something useful like that? The point is they have thought of it, but cannot give you an easy option to turn anything off. The design of products, narratives, and media frameworks, in general, all derive from always-on functionality, because “customer engaged” is the business model.
Social media platforms are now making it harder to deactivate accounts, limiting the number of times you can do it, and making the process more complex and laborious to take your data with you when you leave. We are seeing mounting social pressures that assign political value to canceling social media accounts during times of political upheaval, claiming the act in itself may be an expression of support for systemic racism or a form of violence.
This idea about brands sticking their nose where they shouldn’t isn’t new, we’ve heard much about the problem with companies’ participation in social change. But these critiques often ignore the primary mechanisms which drive participation, always launched within the same partisan frame, seldom looking at it from a third position.
I am deeply sorry to be the bearer of bad news if it hasn’t occurred to you yet: The idea that brands are virtuous, or that they somehow care, or that they ever will, is delusional.
We hate to admit it, but we know this. We understand that large companies act in the interest of shareholders. You could say “caring is profitable now” but is it because “caring” is a popular sentiment, or because big brands actually care? And do we know why they’re actually making statements and donations? Do we know for instance brands who were hammered by Coronavirus in early 2020 were given nothing less than a divine gift with the successive anti-police brutality and anti-racism protests that followed? Where suddenly, as if by magic, a brand could get millions of organic impressions for free, a guaranteed home run, with millions of dollars saved on paid advertising, and that this marketing windfall could potentially continue for months to come?
Do we know that an avalanche of brands boycotting Facebook has less to do with “caring” about hateful messages, and more to do with cutting ad spends at a time when companies are struggling and many ads aren’t working on Facebook, as big-brand messages are often seen as lacking context and tone-deaf if they don’t directly address the anti-racism effort, Coronavirus, or other current issues of the day?
Do we know that brands on Facebook are far more concerned about appearing adjacent and associated with undesirables than they are with the views of undesirables themselves?
What exactly do we know?
Some time ago a saying was coined: “Vote with your wallet.” For me this sentiment was always in the same category as “Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences,” and “You’ve got nothing to worry about if you’ve got nothing to hide.” These ideas are deliberate undermining and distortion of founding principles. This isn’t to say they’re pointers to communist insurrection, but their tone is antithetical to ideals of freedom. They imply there’s an alternate “improved” system of justice and expression that sits outside our founding Constitutional principles.
However you feel about the primacy or correctness of the Constitution is beyond the scope of this argument, but “Vote with your wallet” should be easy enough to unravel.
Because when you vote with dollars, you’ve given up once and for all on founding principles, and handed governance over to corporations. When you vote with dollars, when you make your political causes commercial, when your civic duty is nothing but corporate support or boycott, you’ve accelerated the rise of the corporate state. These words… even the concept of a “corporate state” just a few years ago might have sounded like some kind of paranoid screed… but today I think most people can more easily see what it means, with glaring examples of politicized commerce now encircling us.
Voting with dollars isn’t a third position, but rather the cementing of America’s destructive and circular false choice. The false choice between sponsored revolution v1 or v2. The false choice between failing news organization v1 or v2. The false choice between demented Bobbsey Twins at every successive national election. The false choice between black and white.
Maybe you’re reading this now and wondering how I ever worked in advertising, or how I ever will again, after this type of allegation. I sometimes wonder that too. But I’ve always been a critic working from the inside. While my ideas might be unpopular today, I’m optimistic that advertising as we know it will hit a wall, and ultimately change for the better.
It’s also important to note here (and even regretful that it must be said:) The act of seeing what’s becoming of our culture, noticing a breakdown, recognizing familiar patterns from history and being opposed to their progression doesn’t mean you’re opposed to police reform, or that you’re blind to the echoes of slavery and evidence of racism that still exist in American society. The reason you must disclaim this, the reason you’re compelled to desperately defend yourself at each turn, is due to the overwhelming power of the false choice. Either with us or against us. Right or wrong side of history—you’d better choose one—quick.
This is war, after all.
Is it? Or are we simply being told it’s war? Are we so at odds? Or are we being told we’re at odds because it drives…. Engagement? To the occupier of a third position, for those lucky enough to have the privilege to turn away, the question is valid, even essential. To those still bound and gagged in the fear-fueled binary, it’s nearly impossible to hear.
The hard-fought history of the civil rights movement in America is nothing to be toyed with or sold to the highest bidder. I believe a third position movement will be strongly supported and even led by the black community because there is already emergent resistance to a disingenuous branded revolution, posturing and partisan fakery, a corporate takeover of what were once effective organic and diverse grassroots efforts.
I believe those who’ve long been active in the movement are here for real change, meaningful change that is felt, and have no use for cultural tokenism adhered to out of fear. I believe they know a movement is doomed to fail when forever tainted by shameless corporate pandering, driven by outside manipulators or interests, or characterized by blackmail and bullying. Our cultural memory may seem short as of late, but these kinds of choices still have lasting impact.
Most of all I believe all people are long past tired of being told what to think, and how to feel. The “powers that be” don’t want you to know it, but the third position has always been there, waiting for us to give it a whirl.