SOCIALLY ACTIVE(IST) CAPITALISTS: CORPORATE IDEOLOGY, AMERICAN IDENTITY, AND CONTROVERSIAL COMMERCIALS IN SUPER BOWL LI
On February, 5, 2017, several companies, including Airbnb, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, and 84 Lumber sparked controversy when they ran advertisements during the airing of Super Bowl LI that seemed to take aim at President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Acccording to the companies, the advertisements, which invoked themes of American identity and touted values like diversity and inclusion, were meant to be an expression of universal American values. However, the timing of the advertisements – just weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration – colored perceptions of the advertisements, leading to claims that companies were unnecessarily inserting politics into a previously apolitical space. Similar controversies, including Target’s response to the so-called “bathroom bills” in 2016, and Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit over contraceptives in 2014, have spawned new research on what has been called “corporate political activism.” However, while existing work on corporate political activism has focused on practical strategies for understanding and engaging (or not engaging) with corporate political activism, less attention has been paid to the study of it as a social phenomenon. Using textual analysis of both the commercials and the metanarrative surrounding the commercials as a guide, this thesis works to address this gap using the advertisements of Super Bowl LI as a lens to understanding the broader social phenomenon. It argues that, in this particular case, the commercials were a product of a complex interaction between 1) the cultural and historical moment in which they aired – namely, at an event steeped in notions of American identity at the same time that such ideas were deeply controversial, and 2) a profound shift in the relationship between corporations and society, as characterized by the emergence of ideological, socially conscious, and increasingly personal corporations. Indeed, it uses Super Bowl LI as a fascinating example to show how various societal forces have both “pushed” and “pulled” corporations into their current situation – one in which they have amassed significant cultural capital and influence, but also one which forces them to reckon them with competing objectives and clashing interests in an increasingly hazardous cultural minefield. In doing so, it also forces the reader to consider the long-term impacts of such shifts, and to question what it means to be a “citizen” in a world of corporate citizens.
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