Is it okay to be tone-deaf?

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A Kendell Jenner studded Pepsi commercial caused a fair bit of outrage. So much outrage in-fact that the corporate giant had to pull the commercial from their official social media and issue a public apology.

In case you didn’t see the commercial before it was pulled here is a rundown; a glamorous Kendell poses for a photo-shoot while a protest proceeds outside, Kendell abandons the shoot to join, even champion I daresay, the protest, she spots police forces standing by and heads towards them, handing an officer a can of Pepsi; and celebrations follow.

 

This is not the first time that a corporate campaign has borrowed the flame of an ensuing political development. Last year Priyanka Chopra adorned the cover of luxury travel magazine Conde Nast Traveller, wearing a tank-top with the words ‘Refugee’ ‘Immigrant’ ‘Outsider’ and ‘Traveller’ printed on it. While the former three were crossed out, the word ‘Traveller’ was left untouched.

People were outraged, tweets were composed, and eventually the magazine and Priyanka Chopra herself issued apologies.

Priyanka Chopra

Delve even deeper into the rabbit hole and there was a photo-shoot titled ‘Be my slave’ in Pakistani fashion magazine Diva, where a blonde, fair skinned woman was pictured being tended to by a dark-skinned servant boy. There was very little doubt about where the story was going.

Again, there was public shock and disbelief, and explanations. A lot of explanations.

Long story short, we’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again.

And as always, this recent controversy has unearthed its slew of “much ado about nothing” chanters, people who claim that the advertisement just wants world peace, it is about all of us getting along and we shouldn’t be so quick to criticise.

 

For these people, I will tailor my argument in two steps.

Firstly, I’m sure that the people suffering in each of these circumstances would love it if tomorrow we could all suddenly get along. If the Syrian civil war suddenly ended, and the Rohingya Muslims suddenly weren’t treated as pariahs in their own country, and minorities across North America were able to secure civilian rights for themselves, that would be perfect. But such is the state of global politics that that isn’t going to be happening anytime soon.

That is kind of the problem.

Secondly, we need to appreciate the planning that goes into corporate campaigns. Notice that I haven’t included celebrity Twitter rants on this post, because when something is so spontaneous in its stupidity you have to give it the benefit of the doubt. If an actress or model posts something less than smart on their official Instagram page, you have to overlook it as perhaps they didn’t understand the gravity of what they were commenting on.

But campaigns like the recent Pepsi commercial cannot hide behind the same veil of ignorance. They go through pitch meetings, storyboarding, brainstorming sessions and layers of hierarchy before being green-lit. Everything about them, including the attempt to hijack a movement that is gaining traction, is intentional. They mention refugees because people are talking about refugees, because people care. They mention mass protests because people are attending protests, because people care. So, to disregard the outrage isn’t just counterproductive, it misses the point of corporate endeavours entirely.

These ads, magazine covers, music videos, photo-shoots WANT you to talk about them. Granted they would have liked it if you said nice things, but they can’t have everything.

 

But let’s not focus on corporate for this post, because people have already started boycotting Pepsi products and I shudder to think whether Conde Nast Traveller has still recovered from the backlash.  I want to talk about the celebrities lending their presence to these undertakings.

It is tempting to give a pass to the model who sashays across a controversial advert; surely she isn’t to blame because she’s just doing her job. But, isn’t there something inherently problematic in that sentiment? That in the wake of a complicated conflict, some people should be allowed to make money off of people’s sensitivities?

But even more problematic is the wanton disregard for how  socially ‘tone-deaf’ such brand endorsements are. I don’t expect Kendell Jenner to understand the intricacies of something like civil rights in America. But increasingly, I am annoyed that celebrities have no qualms about making money at the expense of political debate, and only acknowledge their lack of understanding when everything goes pear shaped.

The post outrage apologies are nice but they are also redundant when you’ve demonstrated how little humanitarian matters matter in your luxurious world.

 

And this is not to assume that no celebrity has ever used their impressive following to bring an issue into the limelight, or even start a discussion. Two years ago for example, British singer Paloma Faith invited political commentator Owen Jones to speak at her concerts (as a ‘warm-up’ act) to encourage people to think about important disputes and what they could do about them. What I loved about this was that she was able to accept that her political knowledge was limited, and instead offer her celebrity as a platform to a more knowledgeable person.

Paloma Faith in concert
Paloma Faith in concert

 

I do wonder how difficult it would be for the model, actress, or whoever in question to take a second, read the brief and think about the sentiments that it would offend, and turn down an endorsement simply because she doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

To answer my own question about whether it is okay for celebrities to be tone-deaf, I’m going to say, no. Not when the world is going up in flames. Not when we are facing global conflicts that may outlive us all. And, not when the intent is to make money off of our collective sensitivity to human suffering.

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