For the month of June, we asked all of our writers to include a video in their piece.

I love commercials. In another life, I’m a marketing/business/graphic design/filmmaking quadruple major who finishes college in seven years and then works as a barista until she is hired on the spot by a customer who loves the art she did on the “come drink our single-origin coffee we have free WiFi” chalkboard outside.

At some point in high school, I was taught to analyze commercials.  I had consumed them pretty mindlessly as a kid (which is why companies love to advertise to kids, of course), and so when the world of product placement and emotional manipulation and playing to your audience was opened up to me, I was hooked.  I love trying to decide who a company is targeting. I love analyzing the choice of music. I love commercials that can convey an entire philosophy of life without saying a word.  I love lifting the curtain and catching a company in the act of manipulating its consumers.  

While many lament this advertising-saturated age, I’ve found myself coming to terms with and even embracing the fact that advertising is everywhere I look and that it influences what I do and what I buy and how I talk.  I know our age of consumerism and the social media facade can certainly have a negative effect on us if we let it, but I think it can also transform us into more critical, more aware, more deeply-thinking people.

Exhibit A: I saw this commercial the other week and loved it. I’d seen a few other of Secret’s “Stress Test” ads and thought they were cute and clever. But I loved this one in particular because Secret wanted me to love it.

A few days after my initial viewing, I saw it again with my friend Max.  I said something about how much I liked it, and Max raised a counterpoint that he’d heard on a podcast that focuses on gender issues.  The tagline of the ad claims that “Lucy does her part to close the wage gap,” but the commentators he’d heard took issue with that phrase.  Why should Lucy have to do her part? they wondered.  Why isn’t the boss doing his part and inviting her in for a raise because she deserves one? Why does she have to ask?  The commercial itself, they claimed, is perpetuating the problem.

I still like the commercial. But I’m glad we had that conversation because it pointed something out that I hadn’t thought of. It provided me with a chance to analyze culture.  A lot of commercials lately seem to be taking on social issues, and I think it’s important for us to see our world through the lens of an advertiser.  They know us well—really, really well—because we tell them so much about ourselves through what we buy and what we click on.  They’re almost never unbiased and they obviously have ulterior motives, but I’d posit that we really can learn something about ourselves through advertising.

Another trend in advertising that I am totally on board with is the commercial as art.  The companies I’d consider great advertisers—Apple, Google, Coke—see the value of using their one minute of our attention to make beautiful, thoughtful, well-filmed spots that can sometimes even send a little thrill down your spine. Or maybe that’s just me.

My favorite example here is from Levi’s. But you would hardly notice. (Another convention I love: when you can’t tell what’s being advertised until well into the spot.)

I’ve watched that commercial (it’s a commercial!) more times than I care to admit.  Levi’s isn’t selling a pair of jeans. Well, they are. But not directly. They’re selling a lifestyle. They’re selling poetry and spending time in nature and romance and adventure and a really healthy dose of self-love. I know—I know!—that they’re trying to convince me that I will be happy and badass if I wear their jeans.  It totally works. I wear their jeans. Almost exclusively. I can’t remember whether I wore their jeans before I saw these commercials. Perhaps I did. But the commercial works for me.  And I can’t decide whether that’s okay.

A huge part of the magic of that commercial for me is the Charles Bukowski poem that narrates it.  They use Whitman in another (and another), and Apple famously used a poetry-inspired script for a recent iPad commercial.  The internet (well, the YouTube comments) either loves or hates these commercials. The lovers do so for the same reasons I do—it’s beautiful, it’s inspiring, it’s a gentle way to sell you something.  But the haters are probably people like me, too. Liberal-arts educated, creative, readers.  They’re offended.  How dare a company use great art to sell us something?  Bukowski is rolling in his grave, they cry.  Whitman was a simple man of the earth and you’re using him to pawn off unnatural, unnecessary products on us.  For shame.

But if we’re thinking of advertising as art, I don’t see the problem with using other art in it.  Poets and novelists make allusions and references all the time—why can’t commercials?  Sure, I hear the argument that art is becoming commercialized and commoditized and stripped of all essential value, but I just don’t know if I agree.

YouTube commenters on the Levi’s ad also say things like, “I watch this when I’m sad” or “helped me get through.”  If it takes a commercial to make people feel that way, I’m all for it.  Or if a poet or musician or artist can use a commercial to reach a greater audience of people who need them, I don’t think I can call it selling out.  “I love this poem,” says a commenter. “I know it by heart. I’d never have found it if not for a jeans ad.”

Abby Zwart
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.