When Beyoncé released the visual album Lemonade early in 2016, it was more than just ‘disruptive’ — it ‘broke the internet’. Within hours it was hailed as a ground-breaking contemplation on feminism, blackness, marriage and independence; receiving instant and near-universal acclaim throughout the media (mass and social).
But, just when it looked like everyone had wholeheartedly bought into Beyoncé- branded consciousness, prominent feminist author bell hooks wrote that Lemonade was nothing more than “the business of capitalist money making at its best,” and went on to state that, despite Lemonade being an album seemingly made for black female audiences, “Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no colour.”
Whatever your opinion on the content of Lemonade or the character of Beyoncé, it’s impossible to deny that the album’s release was a marketing masterclass extravaganza. It was — and remained for a year after its release — only available for streaming on Tidal, the music app owned by Beyoncé’s husband, and in which she is a key stakeholder. Within 24 hours of the album’s release, an accompanying clothing line The Formation Collection was also available for purchase on her website. Beyoncé, who once famously asked men, “Can you pay my bills?” tapped into, and capitalised on a zeitgeist that values self-expression, equality and empowerment above all else, while seamlessly positioning herself at the forefront of the ‘woke’ movement.
Of course, it’s not just Beyoncé: everyone from Drew Barrymore to Ryan Reynolds to Taylor Swift endorses everything from wines to cars to soft drinks. Closer to home, celebrities like Cassper Nyovest, AKA, Bonang Matheba and Minnie Dlamini have sponsorship deals with telecommunications companies, clothing brands, beauty products and cars respectively.
While Beyoncé isn’t unique in this regard, she does it best. As the ultimate realisation of the celebrity brand, Beyoncé hasn’t endorsed a product that she doesn’t own since 2013, giving her unprecedented control of not only her image, but of an audience who are happy to be kept within the Beyoncé-approved ecosystem of clothing, accessories, music, apps and perfume.
But what happens when an artist who doesn’t exert the same level of control over their brand or audience tries to shift a paradigm that isn’t ready — or willing — to be moved? Misjudging the market can be a fatal mistake that amasses backlash from both consumers and advertisers, particularly in the internet-powered “cancel culture” era where it’s easier than ever for consumers to band together to boycott brands, celebrities, movies and music. The symbiotic relationship between celebrity and advertiser is weighted more towards brands than ever; and for as long as brands (not consumers) provide the majority of their income, artists are beholden to a set of obligations that can dictate everything from their personal conduct to their lyrical content to their political views. The eventual, and inevitable, result is advertising that dictates art.
Case in point: Kanye West.
In the months leading up to the release of his eighth album, West returned to Twitter for an uninspired and predictable rampage to stir up controversy for the release. In what was possibly a marketing tactic gone awry, he faced intense backlash for his remarks on slavery and support of Donald Trump — support that he and his wife quickly retracted with statements-via-tweets distancing themselves from both Trump’s politics (West) or Trump as an individual (Kardashian).
Moreover, the backlash lead to an album a year in the making being scrapped, re-written and re-recorded in a week. Are we expected to believe that West retreated on releasing a politically-focused album for fear of ideological backlash — the same backlash he has not only relished in, but actively courted, for the better part of a decade? This is the same Kanye West who proclaimed on live TV that George Bush doesn’t care about black people; who stormed a VMAs stage, and who has referred to himself as a “God” and a “genius” on multiple occasions.
There’s a line in the undercooked soufflé that is Ye (the aforementioned album/not-album) where West states, “Wife calling screaming saying we’re about to lose it all.” What is this all he refers to? Surely it can’t be the partnerships and endorsement deals that include both adult and children’s clothing lines, shoes, make-up, apps, and media owned primarily by Kardashian and aimed at an overwhelmingly young and liberal market that earns the couple over $50 million (around R700 million) annually.
West isn’t the first celebrity to sell out his creative integrity and he certainly won’t be the last, but I can’t think of an example more blatantly disingenuous than an album scrapped and re-recorded at lightning speed in order to shield the golden empire. We — particularly those who have supported West through the consumption of his creative output — should be deeply offended by the artistic cowardice of a small man guarding an unimaginably large pile of money.
Once you become attuned to Machiavellian advertising in our scroll-until-your-eyes-bleed consumption culture, the web becomes ever more interweaved and impossible to escape: between branded content, product placements, sponsorships, shout-outs, collaborations, partnerships, funders and stakeholders, what are we left with? What mainstream music, cinema and — more relevant today than ever — media are untouched by multinational conglomerates with their own agendas? Does the (likely old, white, male) person behind the curtain truly champion the values that they claim to uphold? And do those values align with yours?
You always have the option to retreat from mainstream media altogether and only consume art made by the obscure, poor and starving, but that doesn’t mean that the world around you is any less influenced by it.
As consumers, we need to challenge the brands — be they products, artists or media — that are carefully constructed to appear to share our ideologies. Because that’s exactly what they are: constructed to manipulate us into an emotional response that leads our hands directly into our pockets. If we allow ourselves to be uncritical, we become complicit in giving brands absolute freedom to mediate our sense of self through the never-ending consumption of products and images.
Even worse, in an age where the line between art and advertising is irreparably blurred, we might not even realise we are being marketed to. If this appears reactionary or dystopian, here are examples of two of the biggest television shows of recent times: Modern Family and Black-ish.
In 2015, Modern Family aired an episode that was entirely told through Apple products — MacBook Pros, iPhone 6s, iPads, FaceTime, Messaging, Safari, iTunes, Reminders, iPhoto and the iCloud all featured, while a 2018 episode of Black-ish dedicated an entire storyline to one of the main characters working on an advertising campaign for Procter & Gamble. More than product placement — which seems comparatively quaint — the products were integral to the stories themselves, targeting consumers in ways that are impossible to tune out.
Even more dystopian, in 2016 The Guardian reported that two marketing companies, Mirriad Advertising and Havas Media Group had created a partnership with the intention of funding a technique to insert products into television shows that didn’t utilise product placement when they were originally shot. For example, suggests Dominique Delport, Global Managing Director of Havas Media Group, products could be inserted pixel by pixel into episodes of syndicated television shows such as Friends.
In a world where forgoing Ad-Blocker is a form of self-flagellation, instead of creating advertising that can stand alone as engaging pieces of art, many brands are rushing to create advertising-under-pretence in an effort to outmanoeuvre the public — a public that is trapped in the endless tug-of-war of desperately trying to avoid them. For now, it looks like advertising is poised to continue disguising itself as art with the goal of finally integrating itself so deeply that is becomes indistinguishable — and unavoidable.