A few weeks ago, Ryan found himself in advertising hell. His client, an American automotive company, has hundreds of commerce deals with police stations around the U.S. But as the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world following the murder of George Floyd — and ancillary brands like Peloton and Yorkshire Tea felt an urge to “make a statement” — so too did this corporate partner of the carceral state.
There was no way, however, his agency could muster the solemn, mournful and ultimately cursory solidarity statement for a company that had no plans of divesting itself from the cops. The only option the creative team had on the table was to desperately convince the client that it would be a very bad idea.
“We only have two or three Black people in our entire office, and they pulled one of them into a call. When they got on, it became clear that the client wanted to write a tweet that said, ‘We support you,’ and call it a day,” recalls Ryan, who is half Arabic, half white. “That’s when she said, ‘Are you going to donate to any causes? Are you going to make any internal changes? Are you going to do anything other than write a tweet?’ And they said, ‘Right now, we’re just worried about messaging.’ And she said, ‘Okay, well, find a different Black person to do it.’”
Ryan’s agency ended up winning the argument. As of this writing, the client hasn’t made any statements on the ongoing protests, and they even drafted an apology addressed to the Black employee they attempted to solicit. But while the marriage between corporate interests and social prerogatives is never elegant, these past few months have exposed some of the most lumbering, tone-deaf instincts at the heart of any executive wing. (For instance, before the client’s most recent Black Lives Matter breakdown, they wanted to launch a coronavirus ad campaign that prominently featured testimonials from celebrities who have lived under house arrest.)
“It’s just a byproduct of a system that borrows Blackness from culture but still forces it through a white lens,” says Bennett D. Bennett, who runs the nonprofit 600 & Rising that advocates for Black voices within the ad industry. “And not until maybe a few years ago have major brands started asking who on the agency side is creating the work, because they understand that the general market doesn’t care about demographics. They care about resonance, so these statements may be the best thing at the time, but it lacks intentionality, much less originality.”
As consumers, this trend has been sadly comical to watch. Every day, our social feeds are crammed with stoic Helvetica from a darkened avi that used to house a toothy mascot. The language is somehow both completely anodyne and impossibly strained — crafted with an agonizing fussiness over each word. How do you appease the college leftists without obliterating your stock with the Trumpian psychopaths? Who says Black Lives Matter? Who names Breonna Taylor? Who is willing to call police brutality what it is?
The internal strife radiates off the copy. “The Black Lives Matter movement has built up for several years and now we’ve reached this tipping point,” Ryan says. “And most of these brands don’t have diversity in their leadership, so a lot of them are fucking up on their first and second trys.”
One of the core tenets of advertising is to do everything you can to prevent a brand from shooting themselves in the foot. That has been historically true for companies stumbling into discombobulated, hilariously misconceived internet memes. In that sense, everyone I spoke to for this story has plenty of experience throwing themselves in front of a careless campaign. The only difference is that now, the stakes are extremely high. Obviously advertising agencies don’t want their clients to get “cancelled” — that would reflect poorly on their own performance and intuition — but more importantly, by putting their foot down, they hope to change some of the callous liberal laziness that’s part and parcel with the decades of platitudes and inaction that sparked these protests in the first place.
Jeremy, a 22-year-old who is half-Korean, half-white, and works in advertising in Richmond, Virginia, tells me he’s learned to code switch in the boardroom. His clients, by and large, are old white Southern men who are entirely unattuned from the urgency of our current insurrection. In particular, he recalls one of his biggest accounts — a private hospital in an infamously white, upper-class neighborhood — that wanted to print a BLM support statement without any other substantive commitment to change. In Jeremy’s words, his agency needed to yank that idea out by the roots. He says he tends to shift into a molasses Southern accent — the sort of talk that disarms the average Virginian Boomer — until they come around to his thinking.
In that sense, advertising is in the middle of an uprising that’s no different from the diligent day-to-day servitude of the rich and powerful — you coddle the paper-thin fragility of white executives, and make them believe that they were the ones who came up with your idea. “My job is to try and hold people accountable, or make them realize that they don’t want to be held accountable,” Jeremy says. “I want to get them to understand that their best course of action is to release a message, and make a real commitment to donations or diversity benchmarks, and if not, the next best thing for them to do is stay quiet. I believe that in my heart, but even from a marketing standpoint, people want to hold brands accountable.”
There might have been a time, long ago, when corporate solidarity missives could speak for themselves without a battle plan to exterminate the lingering biases rotting away in their own company. But that doesn’t cut it anymore. Caroline, who is white and tells me she’s been writing dozens of corporate BLM statements, saw this firsthand when one of her clients in the beauty industry wanted to respond to the protests by reaching out to Black influencers and Black creators to promote their products. The thinking was hopelessly flawed — Black women never want to be tokenized, especially not as a direct response to a state-sanctioned murder. But the executives at the beauty company didn’t fully understand until Caroline brought in the hard evidence from some similarly disastrous ad campaigns that came before them.
“We gathered all of these examples and made a case study,” she says. “Because we know they’re not just going to just believe us. So we screenshotted all of these Black creators saying, ‘Do not come to me saying you want to work with me in exchange for a product.’”
The thing is, though, Caroline’s and Ryan’s and Jeremy’s offices aren’t any more diverse. According to averages sourced from the Association of National Advertisers, Black people account for only about six percent of the marketing industry. While Bennett is hopeful that might be slowly changing — he notes that WPP, the world’s largest advertising company, has dedicated resources to invest in Black talent — he adds, “There’s still other parts of the system that are roadblocks to progress. Like portfolio schools for more creative-leaning talent, which cost a ton but don’t take into consideration the amount of talent that can’t afford to enter and excel in those spaces.”
Both Ryan and Caroline consider themselves allies, but they also tell me that there is something about America’s long-festering racial upheaval that has sparked a crisis of faith within the field that they’ve charted their careers in. To be an advertiser requires a certain amount of nihilism, but never is that hollowness more apparent than when the world is on fire.
“There’s been this trend with every campaign needing to relate to a cause. But the vast majority of those campaigns are surface-level,” says Ryan. “We’re so much more cynical now. I’ve noticed a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t want to work in this industry, what am I doing?’ We’ve hit that point between the two biggest humanitarian tragedies of the past few years.”
Caroline says that she’s been trying to march as much as she can. Her Instagram is covered with scenes from the protests around the greater L.A. area. It’s whiplash-inducing, she says, to return from those weekend marches in order to spend another afternoon writing hair-care copy. “When I’m out in the street with 50,000 people, and I’m listening to a Black Lives Matter representative speaking from her heart, and then I have to go sit and talk about fucking beauty products all day long, like, what really matters?’” she tells me. “My sister works in marketing, too. She texted me the other day saying, ‘I feel so out of alignment with the priorities of this company and this job.’ If anything, if we don’t see changes start to happen in our industry, we’ll go try to find it.”
If there is one thing we can take from the heat of this moment, especially for those who are white and privileged, it should be a dramatic reframing of our priorities. The brittleness of human life has never been more apparent due to a devastating pandemic that will touch us all, and the eons of institutional cruelty distilled into the lynching of George Floyd. If that doesn’t leave you cold and limp as you attend to your daily vapid duties — if you aren’t suddenly dumbstruck by the profound immateriality of the many puny controversies that you’ve decided to call a life — then you ought to get out in the streets, too.
Advertisers are an easy target, but let’s hope a spiritual audit touches us all. Lord knows, it’s long overdue.