Advertising’s Cultural Capital
I tend to have these thoughts at the most inappropriate times.
A week ago, our class was having a discussion about ethics in advertising. The professor singled out a couple of students to present their papers. One of the students presented an ad from Burberry that, on the outset, didn’t look unethical at all. Then she would add that it is unethical because there were no minorities in the ad.
It was a sweet presentation because the whole class got into; arguing from both sides. The professor, playing Devil’s advocate, said that the brand belongs to the company and they can damn well target whoever they want to target (and exclude) and that was a business/marketing decision.
However, by saying that Burberry can do whatever they want because the company owns that brand and there is nothing wrong with it, ignores the cultural capital that advertising possesses.
This is a capitalist society where nearly everything has been monetized. The things we buy and the brands we associate with come together to form a picture of whom and what we are. Marketers realize that a person can have many different identities and have begun to target them by which tribes they belong to. These tribes, I assume, would have a brand associated with it and also come together to form the cultural landscape.
When Burberry excludes people from their brand or from joining their tribe, they are in fact denying those people access to culture. What that does is keep them on the fringe and subjects them to exclusion. What brands don’t realize sometimes is that while they are the gatekeepers to their respective cultures and lifestyles, they do not own it. When they start denying access, they are trumping the process of integration and the so called “melting” of our pot. For any other institution to do that, it would be illegal.
It seems to me that we are either unaware or ignorant of advertising’s cultural capital. Or maybe we do know and are just opportunistic about when we mention it. There is no shortage of buzz when a campaign becomes part of culture (Livestrong), but no one seems to talk about it when it goes the other way. Well, everyone except my classmate.