A perennial discussion topic among philosophical, possibly weed-addled college freshman is about whether true altruism really exists. Do people perform philanthropic feats out of a pure desire to help others, or do they do it to assuage their own guilt, feel chuffed with themselves, and, much worse, to be viewed as a good person? The addition of social media visibility has only poured kerosene on the subject. And now that people are fired up about activism following the 2016 election, actual motivation and commitment are harder to parse than ever.
Over the weekend, Saturday Night Live grappled with performative activism on a corporate level and on a personal level, and delivered a master class in how not to be a good ally.
The original ad, so infamous last week that describing it now is probably redundant, featured Kendall Jenner joining a protest movement, armed with a can of Pepsi. It was catastrophically received before it was pulled from the internet. Not only does the ad appear to be a coup for Coca-Cola, as many have rightly pointed out, it was a coup for RC Cola and any other lower-tier soda brands waiting to step into the big leagues. One might even say it was a victory for the alt-right and anyone else wanting to suggest that beneath the veneer of righteousness, the so-called resistance has a corporate-sponsored core. (The ad’s very existence kind of dovetails into the concept of “professional protesters,” which has been bandied about since the election, from the highest levels.)
The tragic flaws of the Pepsi ad should have been obvious to anyone involved in the making of it–how using Black Lives Matter iconography to sell Pepsi trivializes the movement, how using people from different cultures as props is not at all the same as celebrating them, and how showing the way riot police respond to Kendall Jenner completely ignores the double standard of how those police have historically treated people of color. In the SNL sketch, we see a fictional representative of the makers of the ad, played by Beck Bennett, slowly realize all of these wild miscalculations. His shame and embarrassment should be a slight balm to anyone whose head hurts from shaking it at that ad all week.
Of course, each of us is as individually fallible in matters of cultural sensitivity as global conglomerates like Pepsi. Another sketch from this week’s SNL skewered the rise of armchair activism, which is surely better intentioned than the Pepsi ad, but equally inefficient.
In “Thank You, Scott,” Louis CK’s hapless Scott is moved by all the injustice he sees in the world–but not enough to actually do anything productive about it. Rather than make phone calls, write letters, volunteer, or donate money, Scott shares an article on Facebook and adds “Black Lives Matter” to his Twitter bio. As he does so, a chorus of multicultural voices sings a song (mock-)praising all the Scotts out there for doing literally the least they can do.
Pepsi went through a show of aligning oneself with the resistance when its executives could have easily just donated the cost of the ad to various causes and reaped in positive publicity instead. The Scotts of the world want everyone to know they’re concerned about police shooting unarmed black people, but not enough to show up in any way that counts. Saturday Night Live may have some contradictions of its own that are tough to live down, but at least it’s inviting people to consider their own behavior.