Selling #TheResistance empty calories: Pepsi’s ad isn’t unique, just exceptionally lousy at hiding its goal

Mark Laver, assistant professor of music at Grinnell College, has an excellent piece on the Kendall Jenner/Pepsi ad debacle in Fortune magazine online that is well worth reading. If you’ve not seen the ad, view the long-form version here.

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Pepsi “activists” on the march.

There’s been endless criticism leveled at Pepsi over the ad, and Laver believes we’ve crossed a new threshold in the social media era where public outcry can be heard loud enough and fast enough to get an Ad campaign halted before it even starts. Pepsi’s PR department and Jenner’s publicist are going to be consumed with reputation repair for months.

Laver quite accurately describes the ad as “appropriating music, language, and iconography from the counterculture of the moment to sell merchandise to young consumers.” For Pepsi, this means reaching into the counter-cultural zeitgeist, newly energized by the recent political unrest, and harnessing the loose electricity to sell sugar water.

During my teen years I worked in the fast food industry, where I learned that the soda machine required “charged” carbonated water to make the beverages that completed the value meal trifecta. That word best describes the energy source Pepsi’s agency creatives hoped to couple to their venerable soda pop brand: something electrically charged and wildly popular with their target youth audience.

some textIn the 1978 classic of semiotic analysis, Decoding Advertisements, Judith Williamson observed the siren call of strong cultural meaning values for advertisers. The magic trick is to somehow tap into those meanings using symbols (art and copy) that go beyond simple association and more toward an integration of a brand or product and the social meaning making process in the mind of the consumer. Advertising invites a meaning making and interpellation process, where conscious and unconscious processes link images, emotions, social meaning and products; and where one is enticed to become the subject of the ad and derive meaning through purchase and consumption of the product.

The technique of advertising is to correlate feelings, moods or attributes to tangible objects, linking possibly unattainable things with those that are attainable, and thus reassuring us that the former are within reach. – Judith Williamson

Ads transcend the border between simply meeting a tangible need and manufacturing less tangible and more spiritual desires. Mythical ad man Don Draper notes in a season 1 episode of Mad Men called “The Wheel” that ads create an existential “itch”—an often profound sense of lack—while promising to soothe this itch at the same time. Critical theorist Arthur Berger notes, “Needs are finite, desires are infinite.” What brand wouldn’t want to plug into such an endless power source? What’s more, Berger contends that susceptibility to such appeals is more acute in an affluent society:

Needs are finite, but desires are infinite, and thus, as soon as our needs have been taken care of, we become obsessed with what we don’t have but want. – Arthur Berger

The meaning created and shared in social movements is some of the strongest mojo one can come by in a culture—as strong and deeply felt as religious faith but more about the urgency of the present than the past, and just as sacred.

Much of that which goes by the name advertising is an explicit offer of a sense of identity, meaning, purpose, and community. Most ads now appeal to one or more of these religious dimensions of life. – Alan Hirsch in The Forgotten Ways

It is that sacredness of a movement’s social meaning—it’s affiliative, identity-giving nature—that leads to the uniformly harsh backlash we have seen over the past few days. The stronger the meaning value, the greater the offensiveness in the appropriation. Movements aim to change the world. Soda pop will only change your body—and not in a good way.

Laver points to the blind hubris of Pepsi in doing this for the purpose of selling what is clearly junk food: “It takes things that actually are really important and profoundly meaningful in our world and uses them to help package and sell a product that is tremendously unhealthy.” Yet, such a cultural moment was just too tempting to leave alone for a brand that trades in generational energy.

To put it simply, Pepsi’s ad was so bad and so blatant, their true intentions were all too obvious. Yet they are far from unique in advertising.

Matthew McAllister in The Commercialization of American Culture contends that the mercenary use of social meanings in advertising tends to devalue those meanings in the process:

The obvious purpose of an advertisement is to sell a product…. Everything that is in an advertisement, then, is subordinated to that purpose. By definition, to put a referent system in an ad is to devalue it. When used in an ad, according to the ad’s inherent symbolic hierarchy, the referent system is subordinate to the purpose of selling the product. – Matthew McAllister

Just a few days after the news broke on the Pepsi ad, NBC’s Saturday Night Live satirized the spot in a biting sketch that focused on the ad’s writer-director and the feedback he should have sought before his big-break project moved past the concepting stage. It raised the obvious question: Why didn’t the agency creatives predict the blowback? The clear answer is that advertisers don’t really care to make political statements. They’re more interested in helping consumers make their own political statements by consuming their product as an essential proof text.

Later in the April 8 program Saturday Night Live and host Louis C. K. broadcast an even more piercing sketch that musically expressed gratuitous thanks to a character named “Scott” for his world-changing armchair social media activism—hashtagging and sharing support for many of the same social movements that the Pepsi ad attempts to appropriate.

Therein lies the truth. Scott deceives himself into believing he can hashtag, retweet, share and emoji his way to a social conscience, while today’s biggest brands spend millions make him feel like guzzling a Pepsi makes the real difference. Loose electricity meets empty calories.

Lucy’s Burning Question and the Indispensability of the Liberal Arts

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like, all things that make us human are fading away. It’s like, the less human I feel, all this knowledge about everything—quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of the cell’s nucleus—they’re all exploding inside my brain—all this knowledge. I don’t know what to do with it. – Lucy, from the film Lucy, 2014.

LucyScreenScience fiction cinema, on its best day, weaves compelling narratives about science fact in order to question and grapple with the ramifications of human technologies and discoveries. Filmmakers in the genre uses the creative imagination to explore “what if” scenarios fictionally and allow viewers to wrest some wisdom from the stunning new knowledge that has invaded the collective consciousness.

This is the case with Lucy, a 2014 film directed by Luc Besson. The film’s eponymous protagonist gains the ability to unlock her total brain potential from a massive amount of a nootropic drug that is accidentally absorbed into her bloodstream. As Lucy’s brain potential expands far beyond the mythical ten percent limit of the average human, the audience joins her in an exhilarating rush of exponential knowledge gathering. The trailer provides a quick rundown of the plot.

It’s important not to take the dubious neuroscience of Lucy too seriously. It’s Lucy’s question about what to do with “all this knowledge” that is the serious topic Besson is exploring.

Recently an article in The Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria struck a nerve among college professors in the Liberal Arts and Humanities, garnering extensive sharing and discussion on social media. “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” was a passionate and reasoned argument for the enduring need for a broad education in the Liberal Arts and Humanities.

Technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. – Steve Jobs

In his article, Zakaria references technology moguls Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs who have each made statements stressing the need for a Liberal Arts education rich in the Humanities—even over and above STEM fields.

And while these are powerful supports for his argument, one can go back much further to a Canadian literature professor who predicted each technology and the resulting industries Bezos, Zuckerberg and Jobs represent—more than 40 years before those technologies arrived.

some textIt’s not hard to find examples of Marshall McLuhan’s uncannily accurate predictions of the Internet, Amazon.com, Wikipedia and social media. McLuhan observed the twentieth century evolution of electronic technology as a means to move information and communicate at light speed—from the telegraph, to the tabulating mainframe computer, to the television, to global networks. This explosion of human knowledge and connectivity demanded creative thinking to help anticipate and understand how this technology would profoundly affect human culture. In many ways, Lucy’s question drove and inspired him.

Yet his prescience and insight did not emanate from an education confined to STEM fields. McLuhan was an English literature professor. His ability to probe communication and information technology and reach into the future to ascertain their effects was borne from his deep understanding of the humanities. At their core, his prognostications were the product of his inventive imagination, drawing upon a literary mind, extrapolating the role of media and technology in the human narrative.

Writing on this topic in the Cross Check blog for Scientific American, John Horgan, an author and teacher at the Stevens Institute of Technology, discussed the argument he makes to his students for emphasizing the humanities in his science courses:

Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers…. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day. But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. – John Horgan

some textAs Zakaria touches on in his article, the importance of art and culture is coded in the DNA of the computer and Internet revolution. Steve Jobs studied design and typography before dropping out of college and co-founding Apple Computer. He had this to say about computer science and programming in a 1995 interview with Robert X. Cringley:

I think everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think. I view computer science as a liberal art, something everyone should learn to do. – Steve Jobs

Embedded in Job’s statement is the notion that the Liberal Arts play the linchpin role in teaching one how to think.

For Lucy, this is about asking what to do with “all this knowledge.”

This is the same question that must continually be raised by culture’s poets, writers, filmmakers, artists:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? – T. S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934

Seeking to answer new questions raised by “all this knowledge” demands the cultivation of a prophetic imagination—something only the Humanities and Liberal Arts can bring to the party. They are indispensable companions to STEM in the cultural endeavor.

Consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum. – Fareed Zakaria

Beyond raising crucial questions, a commercially successful and entertaining film such as Lucy provides a strong argument for the Liberal Arts because it is an artistic product itself—a product that draws heavily upon STEM to serve the narrative. In this case, the art of film, itself, answers the question of what to do with all this knowledge: Create culture.

Concerning the Object and Subject of Love

It’s been both fascinating and annoying to have the past two weeks of social media chock full of advertising promoting the 50 Shades of Grey film and articles upon articles of critiques, commentaries, film reviews and denouncements. The novel and the film have become the object catalyzing strong reactions, as well as a means for bloggers generate social media currency and expand their audience. The web analytics for this phenomenon are off the chart (249 million Google web hits on the title alone). Lord knows what this poorly reviewed flick will net at the box office given the marketing, hype and hysteria it has generated.

This certainly makes writing a blog post of my own the pot calling the kettle black. Yet, at the risk of being accused of clickbait, I stumbled upon a couple of references spanning Martin Buber and C.S. Lewis this week that linked a key idea of human relationships and communication to 50 Shades and made it worth sharing in the form of a post.
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This past Sunday Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor at The Meetings House in Toronto, gave a teaching on Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4:10. While I highly recommend the entire message, toward the end Cavey provided an easy-to-understand overview of Martin Buber’s I & Thou—admittedly better that some of the times I have attempted to describe this in my communication classroom. The basic idea is that there are two modes of relatedness between people: one of relating to the other as an object, a means to an end; and one of relating to the other as a subject, through what Buber describes as dialogue—the “inter-human.”
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Having been reminded of the I & Thou concept while listening to The Meeting House podcast on my drive to work, I was struck by a correlation to this C.S. Lewis quote from The Four Loves in an article I came across in my social media feed (reposted from a blogger previously unknown to me):

Sex is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman.’ Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).

In many ways, 50 Shades’ Christian Grey is a metaphor of the kind of alienation that is all too common in a culture where more and more of our relationships subsist in mediated, even titrated, human contact. We shun the openness and vulnerability required for I & Thou relationships in favor of connections where we can control the outcome and get what we want. Christian Grey’s need for a “contract” with his submissive partner is the ultimate symbol of a thoroughly objectified relationship—which is quite honestly the relational position where such abuse and exploitation occur, as Lewis points out.

This is why I feel it is important to recognize the great potential for all of us to lose our ability to relate to one another as subjects rather than objectified means to an end when more and more of our interpersonal communication is digitally mediated to afford us more control, novelty and less vulnerability. Research is showing a lower readiness for first-hand encounters as people gravitate to simulations or personal technologies that afford relational control.

On Valentines Day 2015 it is helpful to reflect on the temporality and exhaustibility of objectified love and the perpetual nature of love comprised in the I & Thou of two subjects. Let the 50 Shades conversation in the culture cause us to embrace a higher love, just as Jesus related to, and with, the Samaritan woman and called her to an eternal life of the same:

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.