While recently watching TV one evening, I noticed this ad for Sprint:
For those that don’t care to watch the clip (or in case the link is ever taken down), the ad shows a trio of ludicrously rich people, caricatures of the entitled class. Driving sleek sports cars and attended to by countless servants, they roll their eyes at the idea that they would ever need Sprint’s low prices when they’re so unapologetically stinking rich. After all, they’re boarding a private jet to a basketball game they don’t even care about. But (the voice-over tells us) the rest of us can depend to Sprint’s low prices.
The ad is well-acted, kind of funny, and nicely shot. But despite the cheery, comedic feel to clip, the underlying message is rather depressing.
The ad seems to want to tap into the zeitgeist by tying the product into the issue of income inequality. A positive take on this issue would somehow encourage consumers to make a change about the problem or, at the very least, help them to feel OK with where they are. In other words, the message could be that even if you don’t drive a fancy Cadillac (as the old song goes), you can still be thankful for what you’ve got. But the subtext of this ad is nothing can touch the super-rich. The best everyone else can do is to try to laugh at their excesses while struggling to pay the bills.
Does a thirty second ad have to be political or try to effect change? Certainly not, but the ad is already political because it’s touching on a political problem. Income inequality is already shaping up to be a prominent issue for the 2016 presidential race for candidates from both parties. A Pew Research Survey finds that 78% of Americans believe inequality to be at least a moderately big problem and more than half of those consider it to be a “very big problem.” Is Sprint going to find its way into people’s hearts by running ads that make light of their very big problems? I don’t think so.
In addition, the ad runs counter to trends in which consumers value and expect corporate responsibility. Many innovative companies like Patagonia, Toms, and Warby Parker make some sort of altruism or wider engagement a core aspect of their business. Just about all major consumer companies, including Sprint, have a website where they tout their social responsibility activities. The CEO of a 120-person payment company recently made news by announcing he would raise all employee salaries to $70,000 while reducing his own salary significantly. This company is one that cares about income inequality (and will likely attract customers from its actions).
Meanwhile, Sprint just shrugs its shoulders at the problem and laughs.
I doubt this ad will serve its purpose of convincing viewers to switch to Sprint. Americans are known to be optimistic by nature, and a cynical outlook will create a negative emotional response. Some viewers may laugh at first, but many will be left with the unsettling feeling that the joke’s on them.