Can We Only Win for Losing? [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 3]

One thing that will invariably come up when discussing popular culture, especially where advertising is concerned, is that it’s stupid to talk about it because that’s what advertisers want. Take, for instance, the Burger King commercial that was talked about over at RMAN and on this blog, too. After some random LJ-er linked us to poke fun at how we got “upset” over the “humour” (cue me rolling my eyes), we both got a few negative comments on our sites. One over at Luke’s place really stuck with me, though.

Well, you guys are talking about the commercial, so I suppose it is doing its job. You noticed it didnt you?

Comments like those are far from atypical. The message is clear: if you do nothing, the message perpetuated by popular culture remains unchallenged, but if you critique the problematic product, then all you’re doing is spreading the message. It seems like a lose-lose situation, right? Sometimes I do wonder.

Is it true, though? Is it better to say nothing, then to spread the message through critique?

I. Value in Silence?

This one is hard for me to think seriously about. I have never been one to be quiet on an important matter, no matter what it costs me. Why else would one blog, anyway? But, what, if anything, is the value of saying nothing? The immediate answer here is that it mitigates the exposure of the product. Using the Burger King example again, if Luke hadn’t posted about it, likely I would have never seen it. I would barely have known about its existence, as I scrolled past the thread on the feminist LJ about it. By talking about it, we have made more people aware of it.

And, really, I get that. A large part of the success or failure of advertising is measured by exposure. In that case, the Burger King commercial is the “winner” in the situation. Would my silence on the matter have made it a “loser”, though? Well, let’s examine my possible courses for action that wouldn’t perpetuate the commercial:

  1. Engage in a Personal Boycott:
    Well, this one is a failure already. I haven’t eaten a BK product in 6 years, due to health concerns and being uncomfortable with the business practices of fast food restaurants. In general, though, I’d argue that a single person boycott isn’t all that effective. Also, trying to explain to others the reasoning behind your bocott without being specific about the objectionable media kind of diminishes the effectiveness of the explanation.
  2. Be Vague About the Issue:
    Since the problem with the commercial is a problem of culture, it’s entirely possible to address the issue without actually referencing the commercial. This is not a terrible tactic, but it removes the important link between cultural problems and popular culture.
  3. Just Contact the Company:
    This is another option that isn’t a bad choice. Part of activism does hinge upon people making their voices known to the company. Sometimes the company makes a change, sometimes it doesn’t. However, this option is made much less effective if one cannot engage with the material in trying to spread the word about the issues.

As is probably obvious from my explanations, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with any of those actions, but I don’t think that they’re enough. What, then, is so important that it’s worth the risk of making a bad piece of popular culture even more popular?

II. Risking It All For… What?

As you are probably starting to realize, popular culture is an important issue to me. Talking about popular culture is important to me. Criticizing popular culture… well, that’s the bread and butter of this blog. In my previous posts, I’ve made cases here and there for why popular culture is important, and why it’s not as frivolous as we might think. Now I’m going to talk about why I think it’s worth the risk heightened exposure.

Every time I critique a product, I am aware that it will bring at least one commenter who is like, “Nya-nyah, your post made me want to buy the product! Good job!” Generally the tone of the post is condescending, and since they are dismissing the subject I’m talking about (both of which are violations of this blog’s discussion rules), I ban them and move on. For the other people who disagree with me — you know, the ones who read and abide by the rules of polite discussion — I must say that have gotten into some interesting conversations about popular culture. And, even though our original opinoins weren’t changed, I think the act of debating the subject was valuable in of itself.

Going back to the Burger King example… honestly, how many people would read a post like the one I made and buy a burger there just to spite me, or just because they saw a funny commercial? Let’s be honest here; those people would be buying the burgers there anyway. Hell, I’m not even necessarily advocating a boycott here! What I want is awarenes on the issues that are raised in the commerical. And even those who are spiteful about the issue have been made aware about it, even if they disagree.

III. Conclusion

What it boils down to, I think, is that when I critique popular culture, it’s not to hurt the companies exploiting the stereotypes or cultural norms. What one, or a dozen, or even a hundred bloggers say about an issue doesn’t have a significant impact on a multi-national company. Even if we gathered enough people to get the commercial pulled, what does BK lose? It got its commercial out, it got a reaction, and it would get press from the boycott issue. Big loss there.

No, I talk about this issues because I want to spread awareness on the ways in which those stereotypes and norms come to be accepted by most people. And, hopefully, to help people challenge those views, and to be more aware of what’s being communicated to them in other kinds of popular media. Maybe I’ll reach one person. Or maybe none. But, really, I’m of the mind that awareness is never a bad thing. A hard thing to live with sometimes, but never a bad thing.

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This entry was posted in Popular Culture, Series, Shrub.com Related, Understanding Popular Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Can We Only Win for Losing? [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 3]

  1. Darth Sidhe says:

    The trouble with silence is that too many people assume it means agreement. Not voicing opposition to something can be construed as tantamout to supporting it.

  2. Darth Sidhe says:

    Erm, make that “tantamount.”

  3. tekanji says:

    Very good point, DS, and I’ve made that argument in other instances, too. If not speaking out against sexism in your friendgroup is tantamount to complicit acceptance, then why wouldn’t silence in terms of pop-culture not be the same?

  4. jt says:

    “And, really, I get that. A large part of the success or failure of advertising is measured by exposure. In that case, the Burger King commercial is the “winner” in the situation.”

    I think the many feminists (of both sexes) in the blogosphere ranting about this, need to understand: The Burger King commercial is a raspberry directed at YOU, specifically. Seriously. That’s the point of the ad. It’s meant to appeal to guys who look at women in their lives and see a big wagging finger, always telling them “NO” and “Bad boy!”. You, to these men, are the highest embodiment of that big wagging finger. It’s not just that you’re talking about the commercial that makes it a success; it’s that you are fuming over it, just as BK is begging you to.

    I don’t know what the proper response would be to that, to be honest, but I personally don’t think the commercials warrant quite the level of anger and serious discussion they seem to have sparked. Yes, “it’s only a joke” is not an excuse for everything, but I don’t think these commercials are really going to singlehandedly fan the fires of misogyny nationwide.

  5. tekanji says:

    I think the many feminists (of both sexes) in the blogosphere ranting about this, need to understand:

    Uh, you do realize that the line you quote is an acknowledgement of your argument. The point of the rest of my post is to say that I don’t think that’s reason enough not to talk about this stuff.

    Yes, “it’s only a joke” is not an excuse for everything, but I don’t think these commercials are really going to singlehandedly fan the fires of misogyny nationwide.

    Can you point me to where I stated or heavily implied that I thought that the BK commercial was “going to singlehandedly fan the fires of misogyny nationwide”? Like, seroiusly? Because you’re not the first person to say this, and I thought I had made it reasonably clear that I was pointing it out as one example of many that picks up on and reinforces misogynistic culture.

  6. j t says:

    “Uh, you do realize that the line you quote is an acknowledgement of your argument.”

    Well, sort of. You seemed to be saying that just discussing the ad in any way is giving BK free publicity, and that’s true. My point was that anger from feminists over the content, in particular, was likely precisely what they were going for in an over-the-top ad like this. It doesn’t just create publicity, but on top of that it serves to validate the worldview that the ad reflects (even if it’s a simplistic and unrealistic worldview.) Pretty smart, those marketing bastards are, huh? They’ve blunted your criticism before you even provide it. Anyways, I agree it can be worth talking about/analyzing, but getting publicly angry about it is probably not fruitful.

    “Can you point me to where I stated or heavily implied that I thought that the BK commercial was “going to singlehandedly fan the fires of misogyny nationwide”? Like, seroiusly?”

    Well … actually, no, I can’t, admittedly. (Not in your post, anyway; others have been more hyperbolic about the matter.) But you do, if I’m reading you correctly, believe that the ad could have deleterious effects. I’d think it’d be more valuable to look at it as a symptom (i.e. why does it work?) rather than an agent of harm itself.

  7. tekanji says:

    Anyways, I agree it can be worth talking about/analyzing, but getting publicly angry about it is probably not fruitful.

    Except, you know, my analysis of it wasn’t angry. The commenters, especially the trolls, are a lot more angry than I am about the whole thing. In this way, you can say that the ad also blunts criticism, because it goes from the premise that 1) all the critics will be “angry”, and 2) that anger invalidates one’s point.

    I’d think it’d be more valuable to look at it as a symptom (i.e. why does it work?) rather than an agent of harm itself.

    But it’s not an either/or argument. This commercial is both a symptom and an agent of harm. That’s how it becomes a vicious circle: item A draws upon negative cultural stereotypes which in turn reinforce those self-same stereotypes.

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