Everyone likes to hate on advertising (myself included, all too often given my day job). But here’s something wild to consider: In the “filter bubble” world where people watch what they want, when they want and news feeds curate themselves to reinforce their worldview, advertising-supported content might be the only thing that can pierce people’s filter bubble at scale. That is because in a consumer-controlled media world, advertising is one of the only forms of stories that are put in front of people that they didn’t select to watch – and the importance of this is growing.
In 2011, activist and entrepreneur Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” in both a book and TED talk to describe a particular phenomenon that’s taken root in the digital age. In an on-demand world, through a combination of personal choice and algorithms, we self-select both into content that aligns with our interest and news that confirms our beliefs. Though he tried to engage in dialogue on Facebook with people from a broad political spectrum, he clicked on news from liberal sources more, and noticed that soon his entire feed was skewed toward his liberal friends.
Now, it’s evident from the recent political climate, Pariser was right both about the filter bubble and about its global implications. People control their media experiences. They choose what to put in front of themselves, which in many cases is media that they already know they’ll like or which supports beliefs they already have. Even worse is when filters get stronger and people don’t even know it because media is being “fed” to them by their newsfeeds. In this world, it has become increasingly true that advertising can and should have a moderating and even “common ground” effect, and that advertisers can play a key role in supporting and distributing important stories to people that might not have seen them otherwise.
This week we see both the end of the Sundance Film Festival and the lead-up to Super Bowl LI. Though these two events seem to have little in common: They’re both two of our foremost hubs for storytelling and shared narratives. At Sundance, the world’s greatest creatives are looking for partners that can help them push their stories to broader audiences; at the Super Bowl, we see some of the best brand storytelling in the world because advertisers know they’ve got a receptive audience.
For the Super Bowl this Sunday, Anheuser-Busch has decided that while we all love their cute puppies and horses, the time was right, on the world’s biggest stage, for an ad that emphasizes that the company was founded by immigrants – and not just by immigrants, but by those whose national origin led them to be eyed with suspicion at the time – a powerful and timely statement these days. And no matter how thick your filter bubble, you will likely see this ad and get the message – and, even more importantly, be talking about it on Monday with friends, colleagues and loved ones.
Brands have an opportunity to use their national or global reach to support longer-form narratives that otherwise might not have enough of a voice on their own to be able to effect change (or to get outside the filter bubble of the people who would ordinarily be interested in it). Take the example of “We Could Be King,” the film about high-school football that was supported by the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation. The documentary takes on a Philadelphia high school’s chronically losing football team trying to survive in the wake of “doomsday” budget cuts – a niche film that had a slim chance of finding distribution. There is a movement for brands to elevate this type of content, to take a role well outside what corporations have traditionally done.
Sometimes it’s “just” a matter of putting a message into an ad that not everybody expects to see. When Cheerios featured a same-sex couple in a commercial in 2014, or when Old Navy began showing mixed-race families in its print ads, for example – these ads pulled in plenty of praise from one end of the political spectrum, and some unfortunate but thankfully limited vitriol from the other. For another great recent example, see Amazon’s ad featuring a friendship between an imam and a priest. The list goes on. And while the goals are, of course, not purely altruistic, companies knowing they can do well for their business by spreading positive human stories in a polarized world isn’t something to dismiss so easily.
But whether it’s a commercial that sells more than a product or a brand backing independent storytellers in the name of a cause, shared narratives are powerful. When any entity, brand or not, captures the attention of enough people, it can shape the world. And when so much content is self-selected, sometimes the impact of a message that surprises the consumer can be even greater. In our consumer-controlled media environment, that surprise more likely than ever is going to come from a brand that paid to be there, because otherwise we are just getting what we think we want.
The question is: What can brands do next that will help create shared narratives? And how do we all make sure this becomes a sustainable way to market, so that brands can do even more?