The Line Between Putting Yourself in Your Work & Commodifying Your Own Culture
“The Line Between Putting Yourself in Your Work & Commodifying Your Own Culture” is the third in a series of essays by the women of Borrowed Interest, an advertising podcast hosted by three ad-women of color. Make sure to listen to their great first season, which features interviews with Cindy Gallop and April Reign, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Follow them on Twitter @brwd_intrst and on Instagram @borrowed_interest.
We all know that there is a slew of things that every advertising creative has to worry about because of the slewy nature of our jobs. Will I be excited by this brief? Will my ideas ever actually get produced in the way I idea-ed them? How can I learn portion control when my agency always orders enough pitch food to feed the entire population of Slovakia? Will my job inevitably be replaced by my admittedly more talented, Insta-famous teenage cousin, Shayla? It’s a lot of question marks to milly-rock through.
Being a black female creative comes with the “bonus” pack of even more advertising question marks. I have more racial question marks than Oprah has coins...I wish I just had Oprah’s coins. Are my ideas being dismissed because I’m young, melaninated and female, or are they just wrong? What should I wear to the client meeting so that they take me seriously but I still feel like my fly, comfortable self? What do I do when the pitch food isn’t seasoned and we’ve finally run out of the one crusty office bottle of Cholula? Was I only hired to fill a diversity quota?
I’ve spent the past three years finding my own answers to those questions. Half of selling an idea is your confidence in presenting it, so I began filtering my ideas through my creative allies, leaders, and mentors who I trust. I’m the creative voice in the room, so I should be confident and look the part; with a funky smoothie of Solange, Denise Huxtable, and Olivia Pope’s wardrobes. You can always count on the middle aged, hip-hop blasting, white male Creative Director to have a secret stash of hot sauce in their desk. And who gives a damn why I was hired, I’M HERE... NOW WHAT?
But the one question mark that I continue to wrestle with is this: what’s the line between putting myself into the creative I make without necessarily commodifying my culture? Meaning, I as a black woman from the hoods of Detroit, with direct and firm access to the happenings of Black Twitter and who followed Cardi B when she was still streaming live from the backstage of the pole, am inherently equipped with a certain set of pop cultural skills. Because in the year of our lord 2018, my culture is currently the main producer of American pop culture.
As an advertising creative, it’s our jobs to solve problems with our creativity; sell a story, sell a feeling, and ultimately, sell product. But let’s be real, we’re also all in it to make the coolest shit we possibly can on someone else’s budget. And my version of cool shit is oft black cool shit. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I have the desire to go around inserting “on fleek” into every script that I concept, even though “Arby’s: Our Meats Stay on Fleek” has crossed my mind, but a tried and true creative adage is to put yourself in your work. Authenticity breeds good creative, and as a black woman of the internet, I have a first person view of what’s popping days-to-months before it ever hits the mainstream (aka wypipo).
The “trending” cycle normally goes as such:
Stage 1:I, and the other POCs are enjoying and engaging an artist/meme/show/term.
Stage 2: Down wypipo also begin to engage with said a/m/s/t along with POCs.
Stage 3: Wypipo’s Aunt Sally incorrectly uses it on FB after the local news covers it.
Stage 4: POCs have moved onto trending something else. Stages 1-4 repeat.
Stage 5: Brands begin releasing spots/social posts/campaigns with now old a/m/s/t.
And I, a black creative, am wondering, should I put this golden nugget of awesome on a post-it note in stage 1? There are times where the things I’m enjoying outside of work happen to align with brands I’m working on in a way that isn’t contrived or forced. But I always feel anxiety about skipping those stages in the name of boosting a brand’s relevance (and therefore coins) without the originators also profiting, or trivializing and watering down the source and cultural insight for a black trending moment. This is in direct conflict with knowing that the importance of me being the room as a creative voice is that I have valuable insights that wouldn’t be traditionally acknowledged in advertising.
The line can often be a hazy one, but not always. Recommending an up-and-coming social media star as a spokesperson is valid, but not if it’s to sell something harmfully stereoptical. Using an underground trap song in your spot is cool if its essential in driving the story. In both these cases, the people/thing that are used as Borrowed Interest, also directly profit from the exposure. Where it gets murky is hard-to-trace vernacular, hashtags, memes and movements, and it’ll likely stay murky. It’s cool when it’s clear that creative was authentically built around a piece of culture, but it always feels advantageous when bits of trending culture is slapped on mediocre creative in the name of siphoning interest. But even with knowing this, I know this line is a tight-rope on which I’ll have to continue responsibly walking.
Leeya Jackson is a 26-year-old Art Director at Fallon in Minneapolis, MN and co-host of the Borrowed Interest Podcast. You can find her on social @leeya.rose or see her work at leeyaroseart.com. As a follow-up to this essay, listen to Borrowed Interest Ep. 10 “My Culture is too Big for A Post-it Note”. Also she recommends Airfordable.com – layaway for airline tickets, which is also a pretty great thing.
Painting used in this issue: Nocturne by Cecilia Paredes