There are times when I despise advertising and am hesitant to claim my years spent in the industry – when Carl’s Junior releases yet another commercial objectifying women or click bait ads are positioned next to vetted news…but yesterday was not one of those days. Yesterday, I held my head a little higher, was eager to claim my membership in the industry, and exclaimed, “Amen!” after watching an ad. The ad that caused this response was Amazon’s commercial, “A Priest and an Imam Meet for a Cup of Tea,” produced by Joint of London and Amazon's in-house team, according to an appreciative tweet by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos. While watching Amazon’s ad I was reminded of the legendary George Lois and his transformative work, including his controversial design of the 1968 cover of Esquire featuring Muhammad Ali. In the film Art & Copy, a reflective Lois claims his work wasn’t just about selling products, but he and his colleagues wanted to change the world. The last time I was truly in inspired by an ad was Misty Copeland’s Under Armour Commercial, “I Will What I Want” by Droga5, but Amazon’s ad has the potential to be both inspiring and transformative.
Advertising doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The most potent ingredient is salience – or how meaningful the ad is to the viewer. In the United States, this ad is salient. On the heels of a divisive campaign and election, where politicians argued for exclusion – this ad gives voice to inclusion. It focuses on the common human condition of two men from diverse religious traditions. (As a college professor, I also noticed that two of the three founders of the creative company who produced the ad have a humanities background–a shout out to my liberal arts colleagues whose relevance and value has been under scrutiny lately.)
Is it too much to ask of an ad to be the healing balm for a wounded country? In fact, there is scientific evidence that it can be a powerful starter. Advertising, for better or worse, is part of the American culture. When we are exposed to an idea – say, for example, the commonality in our humanity regardless of religious beliefs – we often seek social interactions to make meaning of it. The science behind the process is called sociocultural theory, and it was spearheaded by one of my constructivist heroes, Lev Vygotsky, who helped us realize that learning is indeed a social activity. The theory recognizes that knowledge and learning do not exist solely within our own brains (cognitive functions), but meaning is negotiated where individuals, culture and activity intersect. There is also a biological-based theory – Niche construction theory (NCT), that recognizes the possibility of environments being modified through culturally derived behaviors.
Being aware of the science behind how we learn and how environments can be changed leads me to recognize the great promise in advertising as a way to introduce ideas in the world - ideas that force us to consider the humanity of each other and invite us to take an active role in changing this post-election environment from hate speech to human conversations. Can I get an Amen?
(I welcome your comments and your “Amens” via Twitter @jkelsosandlin.)
LATE (but important) ADDITION: A Pew Research Center story posted on Nov 21, 2016, "Anti-Muslim assaults reach 9/11-era levels, FBI data show" confirms the importance of highlighting this issue.