SoFi and the Ethics of Elitism
It all starts with a Superbowl Ad, run last January, which left some baffled and others perturbed. We’ve become accustomed to high-profile marketing walking the line between being genuinely provocative and needlessly offensive. What separated SoFi’s ad, however, was that it wasn’t attempting to provoke through violent or sexual imagery, but rather through the proffering of a thinly-veiled elitist philosophy.
While the ad purposefully obscures the parameters by which it separates a series of pedestrians into the ‘Great’ and the ‘Not Great,’ the knowledge of SoFi as a private lending company is enough for the ad to forge an inherent association between an individual’s financial status and their worth as a member of society. Let’s be very clear about this – through this ad, SoFi is passing a unilateral judgment over every single individual in this country, dividing the population into a select group of Greats and a mass of Not Greats.
Passing our own judgment over this tactic can be tricky. It can be argued that it is neither SoFi’s nor their marketing team’s responsibility to uphold social unity. We live in a country founded upon the notion of freedom of speech and a capitalist economy. As such, one could take the stance that an ad’s sole task should be to act in the interest of the one who paid to have it made. Taken from this view, many might see the SoFi commercial as a shrewd piece of marketing insofar as it effectively targets SoFi’s desired demographic - affluent millennials - and curries their favor by highlighting their perceived exceptionalism.
No piece of media, however, exists in a vacuum. We live in a time of remarkable class conflict and inequality-awareness in this country and to put forth a message which can be so easily construed as ostracizing millions along class lines can be seen as being beyond the pale and even threatening to social stability. We need only look at the rhetoric of this past election season to see the seemingly intractable divide between the poor and the rich. In this light, it’s difficult not to view SoFi’s intentional stoking of the fire as being recklessly irresponsible.
Indeed, while some may see nothing wrong with SoFi appealing to the young, upwardly mobile (the HENRYs, as my colleague Victor Hernandez discussed earlier this week), others would argue that such an exclusionary approach, one which not only showcases but celebrates inequality, is undemocratic, even un-American, in its philosophy. To categorize individuals as ‘Great’ or ‘Not Great,’ giving no indication of how that greatness was achieved, invites the notion that this greatness is inherent, that these men and women were not created equal and will never be equal.
This is obviously a conflict that goes much deeper than one Superbowl ad from a student loan refinancer. It strikes at the heart of the conflict between the classes and between the American ideal of equality of opportunity and the reality of an imbalanced system skewed to benefit the very rich (a territory we’ve covered before.) Regardless, there is no denying that SoFi and its marketing team were calculated in the crafting of their ad and to whom it was targeted. The societal implications of the underlying ethos of its message may simply not have ranked too highly on their list of priorities.
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