Wisdom. Applied Wednesday: How Politically Correct is too PC?

In a world in which politics pervade our every waking action and encounter, the fact that advertising, arguably the second most pervasive aspect of modern society, is one of the most significant receptors of political attention is not all that surprising. Since its inception, advertising has served to augment brand recognition and sales by relating products to a specific consumer market. For example, children’s goods historically have been marketed toward the young as well as expectant mothers, trendy items toward twenty-somethings, sporting equipment toward men, luxury items toward the wealthy, etc. Although this trend is still evident, the modern approach to target marketing is vastly different from methods of the past. In fact, you don’t have to look much further than resurfaced advertisements even from recent decades (such as these) to both evince this shift in trend and incite shock and dismay among modern retro-spectators.

Although many would agree that today’s approach to advertising is far less discriminatory and much more politically correct, we have seemingly now begun to tip the scales of social tact in advertising in the opposite direction, swapping bigotry and intolerance for over-sensitivity and misdirected concern. Take for example the infamous 2000 University of Wisconsin Madison recruitment booklet in which the university’s marketing professionals photoshopped the face of an African American student into an actual image of a cheering crowd at a university football game. Weeks after this booklet was published, the photoshopped student was shocked to see his face on the cover of said pamphlet because in his four years as a student at UW, he had never once been to a football game. More recently in Ireland, people were up in arms about the dissemination of a 2011 national child abuse PSA that shows a child being struck repeatedly by a man, yet never by a woman. Critics argued that this commercial portrayed an unnecessarily sexist conception of child abuse and vied for it to be taken off the air.

Today, we see a seemingly unbeatable cycle of advertisers attempting to both captivate and accommodate the political correctness of their modern audiences. Because of this, we see modern advertisements fail time and time again. When ads work to promote inclusion of all social demographics, they are often seen as inauthentic and unrealistic. Yet, when advertisements ignore certain social demographics, they can be seen as malicious and irresponsible. Thus, today’s advertising is bound by a unique sort of dichotomy, the results of which always leave someone unhappy. In fact, social scientists have studied this phenomenon for quite some time and have constructed a theory of Empathetic versus Political Correctness. Through this theory, experts argue that political correctness has been overtaken by empathetic correctness, meaning that people respond to advertisements, events, experiences, etc. in mainly a personal, emotional manner. The theory reasons that because each member of an audience has different life experiences, it is nearly impossible to produce a fully inclusive, non-offensive advertisement. Thus, the questions remains: how correct can a politically correct advertisement be upon its debut to an ever diversified and ever-expanding consumer market?

Cover Photo Source: RetroClipArt

Brenna is a Junior Executive at SJG. She recently graduated from Saint Louis University with a BA in English and a Minor in Spanish. As a Milwaukee native, Brenna loves cold weather, everything cheese and of course, the Green Bay Packers. The coolest moment of Brenna’s life to date was when she unexpectedly ran into her best friend underneath a sparkling Eiffel Tower.