What Is Advertising’s Role In The Culture Wars?


The culture wars can seem all-consuming. They certainly consume corners of the advertising industry pretty regularly. For example, a recent update to the famous Netflix culture memo Netflix will not “censor specific artists or voices.” Addressing workers, it said “if you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.” For The Drum’s Creativity in Focus Deep Dive, Patrice Pollack of Momentum Worldwide looks at how to tread the line between free expression and respecting marginalized voices without stifling creativity.

There is a culture war taking place where mainstream media has become the battleground, and advertising is very much a part of that media. As a result, we currently walk a blurry line; do we work to reflect a larger experience, or do we maintain the status quo?

If we accept, as an industry, that advertising fuels culture and culture fuels advertising, then we need to continue pushing the boundaries of free speech and self-expression. We ultimately try to seek out and expose the experiences that shape the target’s truth; to show what it is to be human and illuminate that which gets overlooked and create something that connects with as many people as possible. Sometimes, frankly, that is uncomfortable. We know that freedom of expression doesn’t make us free from consequences, and the consequences of that discomfort can hold us (and clients) back.

Maintaining comfort, however, means maintaining the status quo, and that also means excluding those truths that are so necessary to break through and transform culture for the better. Those truths are ones most of us want to see.

The Edelman trust barometer shows that businesses are more trusted than governments, NGOs and media, and that most people believe that most of us aren’t capable of civil discourse. Having a different perspective, being more diverse and inclusive, and speaking to the truth of consumers’ lives (and the role we play in them) isn’t divisive or risky. It’s simply (or not so simply) the truth. Exposing truth quite literally sets us free.

So why is it that ‘progressive’ is said with a sneer when the fact is that we have progressed? Imagine if brands still portrayed women like they did in the 50s, if dad was still the disengaged parent or if the nuclear family was the epitome of normal? Imagine if we listened to the few that scream, “No! Keep it this way!”

We often take the feedback we get online – which is polarizing and, in many cases, skewed towards sensationalism – as being reflective of the full picture of society’s beliefs. Yet only 23% of Americans are on Twitter, and only 25% of those users produce 97% of Tweets. That’s less than 20 million people. But the most vocal among us aren’t necessarily speaking for all of us. In fact, they speak for very few. And social media’s accessibility to the global community even furthers that discrepancy.

The largest group of people, the people that live in the middle ground, aren’t being heard at all. As advertisers, we need to work with our clients to make space for quieter voices to be heard and then reflected upon. We need to steer clear of perceived safety, because that safety is actually quite dangerous, not only for brands, but for the progression of culture.

So how can we walk away from making normal even more normal? How can we be brave enough to continue pushing (or progressing)? We can start by asking ourselves if exposing the brave, bold truth can be done without harming anyone and including more of everyone. If we can do that, then the work we do can make a positive impact—both on the business and on the world. Not an easy feat, but it’s why we’re all here, right?

To keep up to date with our coverage head over to the Creativity in Focus hub.

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