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The Changing Face of Advertising: What It Might Mean and How It Might Matter

Screenshot from 84 Lumber's Super Bowl commercial "The Entire Journey" (Courtesy of 84 Lumber)

The 24 hours following Super Bowl LI were full of commentary about the political angle of ads aired during the game. The recap: there was the Airbnb pro-diversity ad, the replay of the Coca Cola America the Beautiful ad in nine languages, the Audi women's rights ad, the pro-immigration Anheuser-Busch ad, and the 84 Lumber door-in-the-wall-along-Mexico's-border ad.

With the exception of Airbnb, (which is a collaborative economy business model leveraging people's homes for a service), these companies are selling us products.

In some cases they are selling us unhealthy products (Coca Cola); ones that lead to thousands of deaths annually (Anheuser-Busch); and ones that cater to those who have significant disposable income (Audi).

What do their products have to do with a more diverse and just America? Nothing, of course.

Just as sex has nothing to do with these and other products. Nonetheless, sex has frequently been what ads promise to provide.

So it’s gratifying that during Super Bowl LI, corporations were selling their products and services through appeals to our better nature, advocating human rights, social justice, and peaceful coexistence.

While I know that Coca Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Audi, and 84 Lumber are not in the business of creating a better world, and their ads are carefully crafted to increase profits, I still consider these ads a very positive shift.

That appealing to our compassion and kindness is calculated to work in the selling of products is a good thing. That rejecting prejudice, “us and them” thinking, and fear-mongering are determined to boost sales is a great sign.

If justice and compassion can sell, especially in a country as polarized and angry as ours is now, that bodes well for the actual work of creating justice.

While I have no illusions that these ads will turn many viewers into engaged, conscientious activists, by normalizing and valorizing concepts such as acceptance, human rights, and diversity, they set a standard for ethical behavior and attitudes.

I do not believe that these ads would have been aired were it not for the massive citizen engagement currently underway; but whether corporations are following the mood of the citizenry or influencing that mood is not the point.

The point is that the shift is happening.

It took me the better part of a week to come to this positive conclusion. My first reaction to the enthusiasm for the ads was cynicism. Knowing that these companies do not have our or our world’s best interests at heart made me feel like people were lapping up the good vibes like, well, beer, without using critical thinking and without acknowledging that it’s up to each of us to actually do something to build a just, healthy, and peaceful society.

Now I feel differently. It matters that a massive audience was targeted not with promises of sex, but with promises of goodness.

Maybe this portends an outpouring of the goodness we need to harness with all our might to resist what we are facing right now in the U.S. and the world.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), which offers online graduate degrees in comprehensive Humane Education; solutionary-focused programs and workshops; and an award-winning free resource center. Zoe has given six TEDx talks including her acclaimed “The World Becomes What You Teach.” She is the author of numerous books, including: The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries (2016); Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Claude and Medea (2007). Zoe is the recipient of the Unity College Women in Environmental Leadership award and was a subject of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.

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