Why the 'I can't breathe' blackout videos are better than most corporate wokeness
A rare example of effective solidarity
Suffocating a man takes less time than bringing a kettle of water to boil. It take less time than many Americans go between glances at their phone. It takes less time than the standard television commercial break.
But measured out a second at a time, those nearly nine minutes are an "eternity," according to thousands of people whose regular programming was interrupted this week by their TV screens going dark in memory of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day. From MTV to Nickelodeon to HGTV to Comedy Central, CBS Sports, and even Spotify, the PSAs ticked off each second that a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee down on Floyd's neck as he begged "I can't breathe" 16 times before going unconscious. Though most instances of branded wokeness deserve our scrutiny, and often scorn, the nine-minute-long tributes to Floyd are a rare effective corporate gesture, spreading awareness of excruciating police brutality while remaining mostly distanced from corporate, capitalist aims.
"Woke advertising," as it is commonly called, is a relatively new phenomenon as our culture has transitioned "from interacting with brands as vehicles of self-labeling to vehicles of self-expression," in the words of brand strategist Jasmine Bina. Millennials in particular, who have grown up with easy access to information about companies' ethical practices, are especially conscious of interacting with brands that share their progressive ideals; 70 percent "actively consider company values when making a purchase," according to research by Forbes. The result means the advertising industry is always looking for the next cause to associate themselves with, whether that be Nike rallying behind Colin Kaepernick, Gillette's #MeToo commercial, or even brands that assume "personalities" on Twitter, be it enlightened Netflix or Steak-umm truth bombs.
But creating woke advertising that doesn't come off as opportunistic, exploitative, or worse, hypocritical, is extremely difficult. There are at least as many misfires as there are successes (a perusal of the sappy "coronavirus commercials" being one revealing recent example), and brands seem to be especially bad when it comes to finding something meaningful to say about race. This isn't terribly surprising, seeing as the U.S. marketing and advertising industry is overwhelmingly white (people who identified themselves as "African-American/black" made up just 6 percent of a recent survey of over 13,700 Association of National Advertisers members). And as an excellent analysis at Vulture noted, following the death of George Floyd, "the platitudinous word soup deployed from various brands online felt even more at odds with reality than usual. Companies wanted people to know that they were on the right side of history, regardless of their own histories."
The "I can't breathe" spot, which exists in several different iterations, is a notable exception. The widest-seen version of the PSA was rolled out across ViacomCBS networks, which include MTV, Comedy Central, and, most controversially, the kid's network Nickelodeon. Made in partnership with Color of Change, the video is a black screen with a countdown clock, which ticks toward zero as the words "I can't breathe" pulse to the sound of exhalations. Discovery-owned HGTV had its own version of the PSA, which also used a dark screen and countdown clock, and announced that "we honor George Floyd and all those who came before. We stand against discrimination and social injustice." Meanwhile Spotify added a John Cage-esque 8-minute-and-46-second silent track to certain playlists and podcasts for #BlackoutTuesday, and SiriusXM held an abbreviated three minutes of silence across all its channels.
Importantly, these "I can't breathe" ads are not obviously selling us anything. Unlike other woke branding that more-or-less informs viewers "now more than ever, we need to come together … and buy a Toyota," the television and streaming tributes to George Floyd don't have a product or service they're hawking, exactly. Still, that doesn't mean they're not strategic. With brands increasingly functioning as "vehicles of self-expression," the eulogies serve to reinforce the sense that we're interacting with companies that share our values. We might be comforted that even the passive action of watching TV on a ViacomCBS channel, or listening to music on Spotify, somehow makes us a better person. The ad spot is selling us virtue — both the company's, and our own.
Less cynically, the "I can't breathe" ad, despite being an ad, is also an effective tool of awareness and activism. It makes no ambiguous references to "these troubled times," but is instead very specific and intentional with regards to the cause it's addressing. It mimics the structure of the protest vigil, where thousands of Americans across the country have been taking eight-minute, 46-second silences together to reflect on the death of Floyd. Counting out each of those long seconds, which amount to almost twice the length of the average commercial break, makes you increasingly aware of how interminable they are, and just how callous the Minneapolis officers' regard for a black life would have had to be to last for so long.
And while a number of viewers undoubtedly changed the channel or looked at their phones during the "I can't breathe" PSA, many others seemed genuinely moved by what the eight minutes and 46 seconds represent:
The ViacomCBS ad, in particular, was successful because it partnered with black activist creators, rather than turning to a whiter marketing firm for its messaging. The ad directed viewers to "join @colorofchange and countless others to call on public officials across the country to take real action" and to "text DEMANDS to 55156." As Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group, explains on their website: "We design campaigns powerful enough to end practices that unfairly hold Black people back, and champion solutions that move us all forward." The group's work additionally involves organizing campaigns, directing people to sign petitions and to email their elected officials demanding action. Rather than the "I can't breathe" ads being an empty platitude, then, ViacomCBS' partnership with Color of Change helps funnel people towards real-world solutions for ending racial injustice (no Toyota purchase required).
Still, even the best corporate gesture is still, well, a corporate gesture. It does not absolve a company of responsibility or accountability. ViacomCBS, for example, has allegedly allowed "the LAPD to use its studio lot to stop … protesters," Vulture reports, while Indiewire called out the network for giving conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly, who has a "history of racist comments about African Americans," including about George Floyd, a platform on the ViacomCBS-owned Pluto TV.
The "I can't breathe" campaign, then, also serves as a good reminder of the limits of viral campaigns. Despite the ad being a rare, emotionally effective corporate gesture, raising awareness and urging viewers to get uncomfortable and demand change, it also shows the pitfalls of relying on messaging alone. Racial injustice and police brutality in America don't end by posting a black box on Instagram, or making a one-time donation to a bail fund, or airing a compelling ad on your channels for 1/164th of a day; it also means taking action behind the scenes, too, to ensure a more equal, more just world.
While I applaud the "I can't breathe" ads for their activist aims, it will be the work done tomorrow, next month, and a year from now that really proves if the message got through — not just to us, startled though we might be by the nine minutes of black screen between episodes of Property Brothers — but to the ones who are claiming to stand against injustice when it's easiest to say those words.
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