The 2020 TurboTax commercial, “All People Are Tax People,” features a narrator empathizing with the audience over the difficulty of taxes, and then helping viewers see that just as they succeed in other realms, they can also succeed in paying taxes. This is a well put-together advertisement, which is adapted to its audience and leaves them feeling more confident, but the company behind it may be covering up some unethical behavior.
On my first view, I loved this commercial. Everyone has challenges that they face in life, so opening the commercial with the line, “Being a person is complicated,” starts it off in a way that most everyone can respond to. I feel like at this point, it would be easy for them to say something along the lines of, “that’s why we’re here to help you.” It would be a simple commercial stating a common problem (our stressful lives), then offering their services to help us out. But instead, they compliment humankind, and the viewer, on their ability to conquer challenges. This changed the tone from a salesman voice which we may be used to, to a simple and friendly voice that eases the viewer and frames taxes as another test they can beat. Rather than a, “you need our services” commercial, it was a “you’re awesome and you can do hard things” commercial, centered on taxes. Since it was presented by TurboTax, their website is the natural place to go and act on the newfound confidence that came from viewing the advertisement. I found it humorous, personable, attention-grabbing, and relevant.
But then I decided to stretch my personal media literacy and look deeper into TurboTax, and who they represent. Why did they put out this advertisement in the first place? What are their specific services?
Upon further investigation, I discovered what might be questionable ethics underlying this well-put-together advertisement from TurboTax.
The company that runs TurboTax is called Intuit, and they run several financial services including TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, and ProConnect. According to ProPublica—a newsroom publishing investigative journalism—Intuit has lobbied millions of dollars into legislation that makes it more difficult for the public to do their own taxes. Intuit’s main business comes from helping clients perform financial tasks, so if the IRS were to create easier and free ways for people to file their own taxes (like other developed nations reportedly have), Intuit could go out of business. Commercials like the one above advertise services that in reality should be free and government-supplied, and would be if not for companies like Intuit.
However, Intuit hasn’t totally bullied the government and the public out of their money. Under current law, Intuit and other tax service companies are required to offer free services to people whose gross income is less than $69,000 a year(irs.gov) and they do. They offer these free services, but what I found is that they are often hidden. The free tax services advertised on the TurboTax website are very limited, and finding the government-mandated and fully functioning free tax services is more work than most consumers will put in.
That goes a little beyond analyzing the 60-second commercial that we began with, but it’s important. Behind the humorous and persuasive media that we’re hit with each day, are corporations that exercise their power freely because their consumers aren’t media-literate enough to question their motives and behaviors.
“All People Are Tax People” is a creative and fun advertisement, but the unethical behaviors behind it are difficult to ignore. Without questioning it, the commercial is innocent, fun, and pride-boosting, but beneath it is a company that may be doing more harm than good. This exercise in media literacy opened my eyes to the importance of understanding why media outlets of any kind do what they do. As we seek to understand why they present their ideas or services, we can filter what media can be used for our long-term benefit, and what media sources will only use and abuse us and our precious resources.