Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Commercialized Representation

One of the most peculiar things about caring for my parents is how much their world revolves around television.  Every day, for much of the day, the tee vee is blaring in the background.  It's a comforting presence for them, as familiar stories and shows fill their days.  

But there are commercials upon commercials, none of which are carefully selected for me by the algorithms that spy on my every online choice.  It is, as I've noted before, like visiting a foreign land.  And because it's different and new, I notice things about it, as one does when one is in an unfamiliar place.  

What strikes me about advertising on broadcast television is race.  As we must see race now, I do.  I pay attention to where and how race is presented.

If I were to watch broadcast advertising, and I knew nothing at all about America and its demographic makeup, I would assume that the United States was a majority black country.  Every ad, almost without exception, features black faces front and center.  It's consistent across types of product and service.  Without exception, those representations are positive.  Here are people of color doing the things that people do, so buy our product or use our service.  

In that, it's obviously an offshoot of the progressive movement for "representation."  The idea behind this is that minority populations are underrepresented in a racist culture, and that in order to normalize marginalized perspectives and have them heard and seen, they must be intentionally centered.  This has meant, over the last decade, increasingly prioritizing black representation in art, literature, and film.  This is a basic moral imperative of contemporary progressive media.

But seeing it in marketing is...peculiar.  Meaning, there's nothing culturally black about selling fast food, or pitching cars, or pitching pharmaceuticals.  This isn't about justice, or equity, or anything other than hawking product.  The faces and bodies are black, but the ethos is generic American consumerism, smiling happy lies about the joys that await if only we buy, buy, buy.

So why is this?  It may be that it's virtue marketing, a way of associating a product with progressive values.  Progressives are generally a higher wealth demographic, and so there's little downside to putting blackness front and center.  Similarly, the N of actual vociferous "nonsystemic" racists is smaller than progressivism assumes, meaning you're not going to alienate any meaningful marketing segment by centering black faces.  That, and the most vehemently and overtly racist whites tend to be low-net-worth, so they're of little interest to marketers.  There's an upside, but little downside.

Or it might have to do with who watches what is now called "linear television," meaning cable and broadcast.  That demographic is older, because of course it is, but it also skews slightly blacker.  Breaking down the broadcast audience, sixty percent are white, twenty percent Latino, and just over twenty percent black.  Meaning, black folk are nearly twice the proportion of the broadcast audience relative to their proportion of the overall population.

Or it may be that marketing professionals are closely adjacent to the "creative classes," and come out of the same schools and are steeped in the same ersatz "leftist" ethos, even as they serve the purposes of capitalism.

Or it may be that the larger corporate powers have no issue with a bourgeois, academic progressivism that focuses endlessly on race and gender.  They're happy to magnify it, to celebrate it, to defend it, because it poses no threat to corporate power.

Or perhaps it's something else.

Such a peculiar phenomenon.