The Death of the American Dream as Told by Commercials

I hope you will excuse me taking a step back from my more impersonal I love scripted television beyond the standard “prestige” TV love of people in their late 20s. It's rare to find a show of which I have not seen at least a few episodes. I find TV overseas, including French, Danish, and English television well before it arrives in the United States, in the way that a film snob at the Cannes Festival collects obtuse and unnecessarily stare-y movies. TV has been a major part of my life from long bouts of malaise and long-term residency in areas where unmarried men are perceived as a social ill.

Part of the process of watching so much TV is also watching my fair share of commercials.

They range from the tremendously poorly-acted family advertisement to the gaudy meaninglessness of trying to market something that fundamentally doesn't permit a substantive visual narrative. At the same time, though, purely through one web-streaming service, commercials seem to have become more insidious. They are a foil for the unmooring of the American social compact from the country's people and, in just a few months, it was easy to collect a myriad of horrors lurking between the friendly patter of a few laugh track-laden comedies online.

Take, for example, SoFi. SoFi, for which the name is a shortening of “Social Finance” and represents yet another astonishingly clever portmanteau in Silicon Valley, is a financial startup company.

Originally, SoFi had a relatively sensible and straightforward business model. At its outset, the company, linked to an elite university in the modern-equivalent of a boomtown, facilitated internal low-interest financing between students and alumni of an MBA program. Stanford’s Global School of Business MBA program is well known for producing highly successful startups and social entrepreneurs. Through Stanford’s myriad of mentorship and startup funds, SoFi became a means through which GSB students could afford their $220,000 education. By linking wealthy GSB alumni with the program’s students, SoFi could act as an intermediary between soon-to-be-wealthy students and low-interest financing while still recouping a tidy sum. Over time, this role has expanded towards its natural endpoint, as evidenced by a somewhat recent commercial.

A 2016 Super Bowl advertisement from the company drove a lot of subsequent press from the ever-sycophantic business media who labeled the company, in a persistently nauseating cliche, a “disruptor.” Naturally, you may ask yourself, then, what exactly SoFi disrupts. It turns out that they are disrupting the modicum of pretense that corporate America levies towards equal access to postsecondary education:

note: SoFi keeps deleting or changing the settings on this video

The commercial warns you that any person in your midst might actually be a deadbeat, no matter how gentrified their neighborhood, ironed their shirt, or seemingly happy she is. Quite frankly, you just can’t tell who is and isn’t “great.” You’re not equipped. You don’t have the data, but SoFI does. SoFi loves you and will take care of you… if you’re “great.”

Over time, SoFi’s business model, like many of these well-funded financial startups, has become parasitically globbed onto an existing toxic industry and taking advantage of its noxiousness to market itself as a friendly alternative that is functionally identical or worse. Ultimately, SoFi is just another student lender and consolidator, mortgage broker, and seller of securitized student loan debt obligations - you know, the things that sunk the economy for mortgages - but it has a few things going for it, if you hate the concept of public access to education.

As Felix Salmon so eloquently stated in his commentary on SoFi, “SoFi has grown to its present size by doing one thing extremely well: providing tens of thousands of dollars to people who don’t need the money.” If you log in to SoFi’s refinancing portal - and, regrettably, I have - the thing you will notice here is that the questions are actually pretty sparse. Like anyone who naively took SoFi’s commercial at its word, I assumed “greatness” would entail a lengthy and invasive questionnaire of personal attributes, an essay section, and maybe the electronic equivalent of a trust fall. I was mistaken.

There are really only three questions that diverge from the standard address and credit score in SoFi’s application process.

The questionnaire leads right out of the gate with an inquiry into the best indicator of shame people feel in their mid-20s: whether or not you live with your parents. Next, it asks where you went to college in a clear attempt to deterministically assess personal prestige and capability to pay off the loan expeditiously, finally, it asks for your current salary.

All of this is to say that “greatness” in SoFi’s world is determined by a predetermined algorithmic sorting process couched within its marketing as an indicator of your worthiness as a human being. In many ways, though, the ad is refreshing, because for so long banks dealing in mortgages and student loans pretended they cared about their customers and SoFi does away with the concept of egalitarianism that was so evidently a sham in favor of a circuitous socioeconomic and racial double standard. Now, at least, America has a company that transparently and efficiently leverages income inequality by offering good credit to the nation’s well-heeled and up to 8% for everyone else.

Let’s look at an additional example in the wonderful rideshare world of Uber. In yet another articulation of Uber's horror thriller, "Get Your Side Hustle On" is a commercial that subverts Black cultural concepts of labor to normalize a desperate state of constant despondent grinding or, as this commercial would call it, "hustling."

The subject of the video is an Uber driver, wait, sorry, partner, who gleefully transitions between “earning,” “working,” and “chilling,” all at the access of “a push of a button.” What could be better?

First, the trouble with ride share companies, particularly Uber, is that their drivers are often paid at or below the minimum wage. A methodologically sound assessment by BuzzFeed - yeah, I was surprised too - analyzed the effective wages of Uber drivers in different cities using aggregated leaked data and then, once Uber got wind of the impending article, proprietary Uber data under supervision of Uber staff. The effective wages of an Uber driver in Denver, Houston, and Detroit earn $13.17, $10.75, $8.77, respectively.

These wages are nowhere near enough to live on with the constant threat of the inevitable crash for which Uber’s “partners” are primarily responsible for insuring. Second, the so-called “gig economy’s” most efficient trick is offloading payment for training from corporate entities towards the workers themselves in over-inflated consumer priced markets like the Affordable Care Act’s medical insurance exchanges or putting the onus of on-the-job training on unpaid workers. Uber is no exception to this rule and has stridently avoided insuring its drivers. Still, the liberal darling campaign operative for Obama’s meteoric rise in 2008 and current Uber executive shill, David Plouffe, claims that Uber is helping Americans achieve their dreams.

More poignantly in the same statement, Plouffe points out that “In essence… people tell us that they drive with Uber in order to get a pay raise that they have been denied for years. Or they do it to help themselves when they get in a tight spot.” First, it is unclear to me how anyone would think of working a second job as a “raise,” but the release elucidates something more terrifying: people often turn to Uber because they have no choice financially. This is obvious from the opening phrase of the Uber commercial, “These days, everyone needs a side hustle.” Uber is aware that it is leveraging desperation by couching everything in the context of always being able to work, but has done away with the idea that driving for Uber can function as a primary job in their big advertising spending, as evidenced by the job being a “side” gig.

Of the commercials that have popped up on my laptop lately, though, few are more terrifying than a “candid camera”-type advertisement from the fine folks at Pur Water.

In the wake of the persisting Flint Water Crisis, you might imagine that corporations would use it as an opportunity to improve their goodwill balance and, in fact, many did. Nestle, Pepsi, and Coca Cola donated enormous volumes of water - although, in the early stages no one provided more than Mark Wahlberg and Sean Combs. This was a good moment for a lot of businesspeople to demonstrate how real and human they are, even if they are awful.

Not so much for Pur Water. 10/12/2017 Note: link has been deleted multiple times, here's an archived version from elsewhere.

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Pur has removed all of their videos for this from YouTube. 

In their commercial, Pur Water forms a “business” that is shocking inasmuch as they could get a single person person go into it. The advertisement features a smarmy forty year old balding hipster with a shiteating grin pretending to be a humble businessperson parlaying value to the people of New York City. Shortly after inviting passersby - who, admittedly, probably should have figured out it was a weird viral marketing grift - to drink tap water, the marginally more tufted version of your weirdo college ex-boyfriend has a big reveal: tap water has other stuff in it.

Capitalizing on Flint’s then-recent lead contamination crisis, Pur Water saw an opportunity to explain that there are waters all of the country with things like chloroform and lead in them. While casually explaining that the levels of lead and mercury are within acceptable U.S. government standards, the disgusted patrons of the establishment leave with fun catchphrases like “no, I’m good.”

Let me be clear: it isn’t on these people for being taken in by this scam. However, Pur Water should absolutely be held accountable for profiting off the deaths of people in Flint. The commercial is very explicitly designed to undermine confidence in public access water and affordable necessities.

America has hit a point where private corporations are firmly ensconced in our healthcare system, public utilities, and basic municipal services. Now, Pur Water wants you to know that coming out of your tap is barely-adulterated poison and no one in their right mind should trust those nerds at the government to define acceptable water standards. The corollary of this proposition, of course, is that the government is lying to you about what is and isn’t safe in drinking water.

On some level, this is a natural outcropping of the willingness of conservative America to cut costs and privatize any and everything that could be possibly construed as a public good to such an extent that an enormous already-downtrodden town continues to have undrinkable water. However, simply because the manipulation of public crises in favor of corporate profit is predictable doesn’t make it acceptable or right.

Of course, Pur’s concern for the welfare of the public is fascinating, because Pur’s holding company has an interesting story of their own.

In 2011, Procter and Gamble sold its Pur Water subsidiary to a company named “Helen of Troy.” Notably, the sale excluded Pur Water’s philanthropic division so maybe we have finally figured out where the corporate soul resides. Setting aside the stereotypes of the lofty self-serious businesspeople who fashion themselves Roman mythological figures, Helen of Troy is awful on its own merits. In 1993, Helen of Troy pioneered a corporate ratfuck that persists to this day in the hallowed halls of Enron’s executives’ white collar prison cells: the tax inversion.

A tax inversion is, put simply, the process of flipping legal ownership for a company held in one country to another country with lower taxes such that the company no longer needs to pay the more expensive taxes. It has become such a problem in the United States that there are hours of Congressional time devoted solely to debating what to do about the total $2 trillion of American corporate money abroad of which tax inversions played a substantial part. Now you may be asking yourself,  "why I would bring this company up specifically, when most of the large corporations in America have graced us with the tax dodging genius?" Well, other corporations don’t have the laws against tax inversions named after them. That’s right, the law that passed to try to prevent corrupt tax arbitrage after Helen of Troy’s tax inversion is, you guessed it, colloquially known as the “Helen of Troy Rules.”

So, to honor their fight for Americans to have clean drinking water, I respectfully ask that the marketers, actors, and executives of Pur Water exclusively drink distilled water.

All these commercials might seem disconnected, but they are not. They each represent the dissolution of the American dream and the pretense that the country is an egalitarian state. If your framework for understanding the American Dream is like mine, then you believe that the American Dream is a social compact between the United States and its citizens in which a person works forty hours a week in exchange for a guarantee of home ownership and the ability to raise a family on the income earned from that job. Clearly this has not been true for a while, but it has suffused culture to such an extent that the pretense has been entirely done away.

The wealthy have always had their own exclusive financial services, but it was never so brazen as to become a Super Bowl commercial to promote low interest student loans to help perpetuate racial and socioeconomic hegemony masquerading as meritocratic admissions in elite higher education. Similarly, Uber’s growth among the underpaid and overworked as a source of income to make ends meet - regardless of the long term costs to their transportation or family life through a need to constantly work - has done a wonderful job of demonstrating the failure of any sense of limits on the amount of toil people must undergo to pay their bills. Finally, corporations have found a way to play both ends of the spectrum. On one hand, they own state and local government to such an extent that they have their own legislative assembly equivalent to a boring modern equivalent of the Illuminati. On the other, when their influence on the states and municipalities they control erodes basic services like drinking water, they present their own products or services as the only viable alternatives to unsafe conditions.

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