By Michelle Barnett
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Brand Activism is getting ridiculous

It’s no secret that in advertising, activism is the new sex. It’s been that way for a while now, from Dove’s conflictingly hopeful ‘Real Beauty’ tagline (which suggests you accept yourself as you are, while still selling products to increase your beauty) to Diesel producing a TV spot that took aim at both Trump’s US-Mexico wall and marriage equality. Selling a lifestyle in a world of constant news headlines and online petitions means being seen to care about the issues your audience cares about. But when it comes to aligning your business’s brand with a political view, can brand activism go too far?

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, criticised Pepsi for using protest imagery in it's advert- the rise of brand activism.


Pepsi found itself in trouble in earlier this year when it tried to jump on the activism bandwagon. It was forced to pull an advert featuring a band of attractive young protestors at a rally in a suspiciously clean city. They don’t appear to be marching for any particular cause (a few signs read ‘Peace’ and ‘Unity’) but a model leaves her photoshoot to hand a can of Pepsi to a police officer. The social media backlash was immediate.  Angry conservatives saw that ad as supporting a liberal agenda, while liberal viewers felt that Pepsi was patronising them. To them the advert had shown protesting, seen as an important vehicle for bringing social change, into just some fun activity that creative young hipsters did on the weekends. By failing to pick a side, Pepsi had managed to anger both!

This bland message might have parsed at another time, but April 2017 wasn’t it. The release of the campaign was timed very badly, which helped kill it. Western politics was scrambling to adjust and heal divides after the announcement of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.  Silicon Valley companies were being scoured over sexual harassment and discrimination cases.  The Black Lives Matter movement was well underway with its massive marches and surfacing reports of police brutality. People were incredibly politically sensitive, and to suggest that political differences could be solved with a gift of Pepsi was too naive to bear.

Shock power

One of the companies who famously waded in early was United Colours of Benetton. Their 1991 poster of a newborn baby, smeared in blood and with the umbilical cord still attached, received decidedly mixed reviews.  It was banned from being shown in several European cities and was condemned by the Code of Advertising Practice Conduct Court for being insensitive, but it also won an award from the Société Générale d’Affichage (General Poster Association) for it’s unstaged reality and was displayed in the Saint’Orsola General Hospital in Bologna.

Benetton asked, 

‘Can marketing and the enormous power of advertising budgets be used to establish a dialogue with consumers that focuses on something other than a company’s products? Where was it written that advertising could only portray the absence of conflict and pain?’ 

Brands often portray an ideal – life as we wish it was – to sell their products, so talking about difficult realities seems dangerous and counter-intuitive. It worked out for Benetton because it made them seem genuine and passionate compared to other brands. They had an opinion, and therefore had a personality that could be related to on a much more intimate level. For every member of the public that disliked their ad campaign and vowed never to set foot in a shop, another one decided to check out their products.

They’ve continued with this to the present day, tackling hard truths about the AIDS crisis, racism, world hunger, and refugees, although their photos have become a little more produced in recent years compared to some of the older candid shots. That’s the difficulty with using shock value as a tactic – you then have to continue to shock people each time you want to make a new point, and after a while the public simply runs out of shock and ads lose their power.  And of course they’re no longer the outlier.  As being political becomes ‘safer’, more and more brands are doing it.

The changing face of Corporate Responsibility

One of the causes of Brand Activism is the ongoing importance of social media in branding. The short-form nature of these platforms forces each company (a large organism made of many of individuals) to address their audience through one account, as if it was a single person talking. This becomes their ‘brand voice’, a persona that has it’s own likes and opinions. And a persona can make moral choices. Social media has made us more socially aware with news updates sent directly to our phones, and we are starting to expect, and even demand, that the companies we support take a visible moral stance on issues we care about.

Some companies try to resolve this by building in a social responsibility aspect from the start. Shoe company TOMS worked a charitable aspect into the makeup of their brand and used it as a USP.  For each pair of shoes sold, TOMS donated to developing countries. Initially their donation was, unsurprisingly, a pair of shoes but as time went on and the model was questioned (were shoes really what the impoverished recipients needed most?), they responded by expanding their range. Customers can now find their purchases supporting healthcare, education, clean water programmes and midwives.

Ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s have Social Mission as one of their key purposes, and a list of causes they are advocating for on their website.  Some of them are still controversial in the media, and their boldness in picking a side is also now part of their brand image too.

TOMS One for one campaign

For purpose or profit?

There are suggestions that the movement around brand activism could be a really good thing. With increasing connectivity and transparency comes the opportunity for customers to hold companies to account and encourage ethical behaviour.

Brand Activism is not always easy to do.  Brands who are selling an aspirational concept have it harder than those that are just talking about the function of their product.  A vacuum company is unlikely to ever need an opinion on the refugee crisis (although it might be expected to show an equal number of men and women doing the housework). Of all the demands the public could be making, this concern to see consistent ethical progress from businesses could have really positive consequences.

The flip side here is that it starts to turn businesses – sellers of internet access and clothing and sugary snacks – into political figures in their own right. As they position themselves to catch the favour of public opinion, they may find themselves somewhere they’d made no plans to be, purely reacting rather than making deliberate decisions, or making statements about their corporate beliefs that they haven’t had time to back up with action. A brand can affect opinions and spur huge numbers of followers to act, but likewise public whim can dictate the actions of a business that arguably has no right weighing in on a debate about social housing or gender identity.  And of course, a view isn’t necessarily right just because it’s popular.

We are asking brands to lead the way on ethics, but they will only ever be reflections of our own opinions – at our best and worst – because it’s in their financial interests to be so.

There will always be questions over how genuine this kind of engagement can be, especially if brands espouse moral ideals but continue to do their everyday business in ways that perpetuates the need for brand activism in the first place. A car company may promote it’s balanced male-female workforce ratio, but will never speak up on air pollution or oil drilling.  A clothing brand may be praised for having one line of sustainably sourced clothing, but that also highlights the fact that that the remaining 90% of it’s clothing is not sustainable. Cadbury released a FairTrade Dairy Milk bar in 2009, but since then has not made the move to do the same with any of it’s other products, leaving the Dairy Milk stranded as a token gesture.

Any company has to turn a profit in order to continue existing.  When push comes to shove they will have to prioritise that over anything else, which limits the extent and means of their involvement. That’s just the nature of consumerism, however it does make it difficult to judge when a company is being sincere in it’s support of current issues. We need to ask ourselves how much the true intentions of CEOs matter to us if the result is that some good causes get supported.

Is brand activism getting ridiculous? Using the power of shock to communicate.

The future of Brand Activism?

It will be interesting to see how this trend develops, and when and how it reaches it’s end. It’s not showing signs of slowing yet, but there already are hints of how the end might come. With companies trying to outdo each other in finding moral high ground, claims about their ability to make change are becoming more and more exaggerated. Audiences will become more sceptical, more desensitised to political content in the brands they use. One Guardian article sarcastically referenced a coffee advert, saying:

In the UK, people drink Kenco coffee not for its smooth blend, but because it’s training young men in Honduras to be coffee farmers instead of gang members. I know this because I saw the primetime TV advert with the end line “coffee v gangs” in which a gang member’s tattoos turned into inked coffee fields before my very eyes.

It’s treading dangerously close to Pepsi’s mistake – ‘We thought that community improvement programmes, reducing unemployment, rehabilitation for criminals, cutting down government corruption, and a well trained police force would solve the gang problem.  But it turns out all we needed was a good cup of coffee!’

This might matter more than you’d think. For those that believe that brand activism has the potential to benefit society, keeping up the demand for it will be a key part of whether it endures long enough to become established and normal. Spending power does have an impact on how companies decide to run themselves, and business practices are a key part of tackling problems, even global ones such as pollution and climate change. But both people and companies are starting to realise that no single organisation has the power to resolve social issues that have long and complex histories of their own.



Images from The Grapevine and Diners Club Magazine

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