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Oh, Sweet Nuthin!: Selling Your Soul

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It’s becoming increasingly obvious that running a political campaign in this country is essentially the same as running an advertising agency. For those of you who don’t watch “Mad Men,” advertising is all about branding. You don’t sell your product directly—you use a brand to imply the things you can use to sell it: respect, glamour, love. While advertisers have to worry about the veracity of their explicit promises, it’s comparably easy to just slap a brand, symbolizing whatever they want, onto their product. Or their grassroots movement. If it’s successful enough, there’s not much stopping them from sticking it to other things. Brand Obama has sold more t-shirts, novelty beers and commemorative mint tins than Alf sold pogs.

So it’s not surprising that the National Marriage Boycott (NMB) fliers in bathroom stalls across campus look strikingly like American Apparel ads: color portraits on a white background, black text at the bottom and a staggered, all-caps logo along the side, adjusted to fit. And it’s all in Helvetica, the font so hip they made a movie about it.

In some ways, this makes a lot of sense. It’s a youth movement, and what do kids like more than American Apparel? The stereotypical AA customer is disaffected enough to excuse his lack of political action on Prop 8 by claiming not to care about marriage. To him, inequality is just another strike against an institution that was already too bourgeois to bother with. For this person, the NMB should be a challenge to turn that indifference into a political statement. If he doesn’t boycott marriage, he must care about it. He intends someday to get married, presumably to the person of his choice. And why shouldn’t everyone have that freedom? People like him might be an ochre v-neck-wearing silent majority. Targeting hipsters in an attempt to corner them out of their fashionable apathy, (not unlike AA itself did when it gave out free “Legalize Gay” shirts last year), seems like a smart move on NMB’s part.

But why did an improbable number of these NMB fliers end up crumpled and foot-printed on my co-op’s bathroom floor? I highly doubt that the good hippies of Synergy House were offended by marriage equality. This is a community that celebrates the coming of spring with a big, naked, beet juice-covered dance around a Maypole. I think those fliers were taken down because of what the brand implied, which has disturbing implications for the movement if it doesn’t revise its campaign.

American Apparel ads pull off their uber minimalist style by relying on provocative content. The photos are of pretty young men and women in flashy colors, pin-up poses and revealing clothing. The text, while sparse, is chock-full of brand names and buzzwords. It’s catchy, it’s smart and it’s all very attention-grabbing. Brand AA sells on sex and wit, and their ads have more than enough of both to fill a billboard without the bells and whistles of a serifated font.

The National Marriage Boycott is trying to use the same formula for sincerity instead of sex. No wonder they’re coming off vapid. The photos are of young people in poses that I can only assume are supposed to look profound. A young man on a flat background with a firm mouth, soft eyes and a hand clasped before his chest. Two glossy lovers in front of the Conservatory of Flowers, glaring into the sunset. The text is quotations: “Why I boycott,” in the form of sweeping statements about “love,” “equality” and “struggle.” There is no challenge here, and nothing surprising. Just teenagers with expensive cameras taking themselves very seriously. Boys without girlfriends, who eat ramen for breakfast and spend their weekdays playing Call of Duty, are boycotting marriage in a heroic act of sacrifice? It’s enough to make me gag.

It’s not just because they’re young. Imagine if there were similar posters in the 1960s with photos of middle-aged white Americans, faces stone-like, fists raised and quoted about their painful decision not to play on segregated tennis courts. The gravity of a boycott isn’t held by the boycotters. The whole point is that the sacrifice is negligible when compared to the severity of the real struggle, and what stands to be gained. If enough straight couples opt for civil unions over marriages that this becomes the norm, then, culturally, NMB will have the equality it’s fighting for. It’s more likely that the trend itself would be enough to push legislation forward. But for this to happen the brand needs to come across as not just another way to pad resumes and coddle consciences. The only way to gain legitimacy is to demonstrate perspective. To consciously affect progress, they need to know where they stand.

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