There’s a popular series of videos on the Youtube channel Epicurious where a “design expert,” a friendly-looking white guy called Dan Formosa, reviews various kitchen gadgets. Many of these gadgets are the kinds of things that make a difficult or annoying task faster and easier (like the crank-powered grater that pumps out shredded cheese at a truly astonishing rate) and some of them are…a bit less useful (like the silicone contraption to squish water out of a tuna can. You know, like you always just do with the lid of the tuna can). Dan always gives the gadgets a thorough testing, though, even the cheap, cash-grabby ones you can’t imagine a real person ever wanting or needing to use. He uses them as advertised first, then he does something interesting: he covers his non-dominant hand in olive oil and tries using the gadget again using only that hand. Dan calls this the “left-handed oil test,” and he does it to simulate what it might be like for someone with grip or coordination problems to use the gadget. A lot of the gadgets, even the ones that performed really well while he was using his dominant hand, fail the left-handed oil test. They’re too stiff or slippery or finicky.
When he rates them at the end, the ones that fail the test get points docked pretty severely. Sometimes, it seems unfair. After all, it’s not the pineapple slicer’s fault that he oiled up his left hand and bumbled around with it. It worked just as advertised when he used it normally—but then, normal is kind of a tricky word, isn’t it? After all, as Dan points out, someone without hand problems doesn’t even need your pineapple slicer. They can peel it, chop it, dice it with a normal knife no problem. It’s the people who can’t do that, that can’t hold a knife tightly enough or press it hard enough, that need your product the most, and if they can’t use it, then who is it for at all?
In advertising, there can be a similar problem. You’ve probably heard of the idea of the lowest common denominator, where something is designed to appeal to as many people as possible. Although that concept has a pretty negative connotation, it’s still ubiquitous in most corporately-owned media, especially advertising. Just think about the (in?) famous 2021 Jeep Superbowl spot, where Bruce Springsteen drove to the literal center of America to remind Americans that they are all, uh, American. And, of course, that they should all buy Jeeps, too. Even when it’s not so explicit, lots of ads have the same subtext: everyone is really the same as everyone else (because everyone should want to buy our product)!
You can see this in film production, too. When a massive media conglomerate like Disney pours millions of dollars into a movie, they really need to see that money come back, and they can only do that if everybody wants to buy a ticket—or maybe it’s better to say that nobody doesn’t want to buy a ticket. Take Avengers: Endgame. When it was being marketed, it was reported that it contained the first openly gay character in Marvel movies, which certainly generated some buzz in the Western markets. But when the movie came out, that gay character was an unnamed man with a couple of lines that had nothing to do with the plot, making him easy to cut out for releases in markets where an openly gay character might not be as well received.
It’s perfectly normal to want to appeal to as many people as possible. Not only is it good business, but there’s also a certain noble feeling in never giving special treatment. We all like to imagine that we’re fostering unity, that we’re being fair; we certainly don’t want to sow division. But treating everyone equitably shouldn’t mean treating everyone the same. It should mean understanding that everyone has something unique that they can offer and something unique that they might want. Instead of looking for the center, we should look at the margins, at the extremes. If you make a pineapple slicer, you shouldn’t be asking who your average customer is. You should ask who your weakest customer is, who your strongest customer is, who your tallest customer is, who your shortest customer is. Define your edges and you cover the center by default.
In media, whether its film, TV production, or advertising, this means doing more than shooting for a vague center line. It means finding those people who have for so long been left out of the lowest common denominator and putting their stories on screen. Find the people who haven’t had the chance to speak in a media landscape dominated by the lure of mass appeal, and you’ll find stories that really speak to our universal humanity. Stories that go beyond tokenization toward honest representation can and do succeed both commercially and artistically not in spite of but because they avoid the hollow, empty “centrism” that was so well illustrated by Jeep’s Superbowl spot. The truth is that none of us are in the center, not really. We’re all a little taller, a little shorter, a little weaker, or a little stronger. We are disabled, or neurotypical, or racially marginalized, or queer, or a gender minority. Representation is for more than marginalized groups: it’s for everyone who wants to remember that there’s more to humanity than the lowest common denominator. After all, if we’re not making stories for the people who need them most…then who are they for?