Millions of Americans saw this rather baffling ad during the Super Bowl on Sunday night, and probably forgot about it ten seconds later:
The ad is for one of the biggest and fastest-growing finance startups in the world, SoFi. But what does it mean?
First, and most obviously, it means that big Silicon Valley start-ups have more money than they know what to do with. In September, SoFi raised more than $1 billion in a single financing round, and its CEO is openly talking about the company being worth an astonishing $30 billion. (To put that number in perspective, neither Lending Club nor Square, the two most notable finance-industry startups to have gone public, are worth even one-tenth of that amount.)
Still, like most "unicorns," SoFi's valuation vastly outstrips its actual revenues, which were roughly $100 million in 2015. Given that the cost of a Super Bowl slot this year was $5 million, that means SoFi is pumping a huge chunk of its revenue into CBS's coffers. As this chart shows, the only other advertiser that even comes close is the NFL itself:
Secondly, the SoFi ad is explicitly divisive. It divvies up the world into the "great" and the "not great," with most people finding themselves in the latter category. (The original version of the ad went so far as to tell you, the viewer, that "you're probably not" great.)
SoFi has grown to its present size by doing one thing extremely well: providing tens of thousands of dollars to people who don't need the money. The company seeks out successful high earners (the "great"), and encourages them to refinance their student loans at very low interest rates. If you're struggling to keep up with your student loans, on the other hand, you're almost certainly "not great", and SoFi is happy to leave you out in the cold.
Thirdly, the ad sees the entire world through Silicon Valley's rose-colored glasses. The culture depicted in SoFi's ad, which bears a startling resemblance to San Francisco, where SoFi is headquartered, is a racially-diverse world of fit, happy, youngish adults enjoying a dense urban cityscape. Everybody's on foot, except for the toddler in the stroller and Brandon, at the end, on his bicycle. The coffee shops are full of creative types; it's hard to identify a single person who might be earning an hourly wage, with the possible exception of the disembodied hand grating parmesan over a salad.
If most of the people in this ad aren't "great", in SoFi's terms, at least they're in the running: they're healthy, college-educated, upwardly-mobile. Most of them haven't seen the inside of a Walmart in months, if ever, and they certainly wouldn't ever work in one. These are the winners of the global economy, and SoFi is happy to cherry-pick from among even the winners. The people losing out in contemporary America – the folks without college degrees, the people with chronic health problems, the blue-collar workers whose jobs have been outsourced to Honduras or Vietnam – aren't even in the picture. When the ad encourages viewers to "find out if you're great at sofi.com", most Super Bowl viewers don't even need to be told not to bother. The ad's setting does that very effectively on its own.
All of which is to say that the ad has a very bubblicious feeling. Remember this ad, from just before the great 2000 stock-market crash?
The SoFi ad isn't nearly as obnoxious (nor, for that matter, is it nearly as funny). But it has the same feeling of the other shoe being about to drop: it feels weirdly like the opening scenes of a zombie-apocalypse movie. (It's sunny. Too sunny.)
SoFi's target market of high-earning young adults aren't wealthy yet: that's why SoFi is offering them loans (including mortgages), rather than offering them private-banking services offering to manage their money for a fee. The idea is that SoFi can identify the tiny subset of winners in an economy defined by inequality; hitch its wagon to their fortunes; and then watch the money roll in.
But in the real world, the "not-great" have a voice, and they vote, and there's a limit to how much they can be squeezed until there's no more juice left in them. If your business model is to ignore those people while spending millions of dollars running ads that congratulate the elite on being "great", then you're not going to get much sympathy if and when the tables start to turn. The Super Bowl is one of the great equalizers in American life: everybody watches the same game, and the same ads, at the same time, and has pretty much the same experience. To use the Super Bowl to separate America's "great" few, on the one hand, from its unwashed masses, on the other, is tone-deaf at best.