We don’t need any more ads about equality from brands that don’t have their house in order or aren’t putting their money where their mouth is - we need action, argues Faris Yakob.
If there is a theme to my writing on advertising over the last couple of decades, beyond exploring the intricacies of human psychology, behavior, and culture as it applies to effective brand communication, it is my ongoing issue with corporate dissonance.
The advertising industry is one of utterance - we speak for brands, sayings designed to create positive associations, memories, and behaviors that create positive economic impact for our clients, be it volume or value growth, profitability, market share, price premium or stock price.
The two aspects of an entity that may be judged externally are its statements and its behavior -- and the two sometimes diverge significantly.
We’ve seen this endlessly with protections of ‘puffery’ which banks especially like to use to prevent themselves being held legally accountable for what they say in advertising. Claiming they are changing to make things better for consumers in ads whilst lobbying behind the scenes to make things worse in order to increase profits.
The very existence of H&R Block and TurboTax is predicated on endless lobbying that led to the IRS being forbidden from offering a free, automated tax filing system for the majority of US consumers, freeing them from a pointless, expensive, time consuming and stressful experience that usually requires the poorest people to loan the government money interest free. Lying about inventing amazing new clean diesel technologies in wonderful films about fun as a motivational theory, while rigging software to pass the tests.
Obviously large corporations are made up of vast numbers of people and, similarly to the police in the US, they blame all malfeasance on ‘a few bad apples’, perhaps forgetting that the rest of the expression is ‘spoil the bunch’. Companies pay fines and accept no responsibility under the law. However, beyond the actively criminal, there are various flavors of dissonance that we are seeing a lot of today.
We are experiencing incredible scenes in the USA, as Black Lives Matter protests break out in every state, during a pandemic, as we hurtle towards recession or worse. We saw Black Out Tuesday, in which social media was being used to protest through silence, or black spaces, to give the protesters and black community space to be heard. Inevitably, everyone wants to be seen to care and is blacking out hard, perhaps missing the primary intent of clearing the noise of social media for more important messages. Inevitably, this performative social activism, like hacktivism in general, garners criticism since it seems restricted to social media posts. Nike, often among the fastest brands to respond to black culture, came out saying Just Don’t Do It.
"For once, Don't Do It. Don't pretend there's not a problem in America. Don't turn your back on racism. Don't accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don't make any more excuses. Don't think this doesn't affect you. Don't sit back and be silent. Don't think you can't be part of the change. Let's all be part of the change."
These are important conversations to have and those with the largest megaphones should be lauded for using them to highlight these topics. Nike went on to say that they have “a long history of standing against bigotry, hatred and inequality in all forms" and it’s true, most recently by supporting Colin Kapernick. However, they have also been accused of appropriating and exploiting black culture. It’s impossible to know intentions, beyond that all public companies believe they have a mandate to put profits before people, but while supporting Kapernick they remained the official apparel partner of the NFL. Despite decades of close association with a broad swathe of black culture, it has, and has always had, a completely white and predominantly male leadership team. In 2018, after years of diversity initiatives, the HR chief sent a memo to employees saying that the company had failed in both “promoting and hiring women and minorities to senior-level positions.”
Other brands leapt into the fray. L’Oreal announced that it “stands in solidarity with the Black community, and against injustice of any kind” and a donation to NAACP, with the line “Speaking Out Is Worth It”. It’s almost as though people running brand communication turn over frequently and have no interest in history.
This communication really stuck in social media’s collective craw. The responses I scanned through were exclusively negative because L’Oreal fired transgender model Munroe Bergdorf a few years ago for speaking out about racism. The hypocrisy is staggering. Following the backlash, they reached out to Bergdorf and donated £45k - to LGBT+ causes, which is confusing in its amount and recipient [L’Oreal spent more than $9bn on advertising last year]. Fast food brands lept on the Black Lives Matter hashtag to preach solidarity at their followers and were immediately called out for seeming to, as Tejal Rao wrote in the New York Times “follow the same set of unspoken rules: Never commit to any action; and never, under any circumstances, examine your own internal systems and policies or how they might affect your workers."
As someone commented on Twitter:
“Watching not one but two movements organized and started by Black Women be co-opted by those who regularly appropriate our culture and have no skin in the game, literally and figuratively, is... very on trend and absolutely exhausting.”
It brings to mind Dominic Cummings and his ill advised, possibly illegal, drive to Barnard Castle to ‘test his eyesight’. This would sit comfortably with the kind of corporate pablum we too often hear, tying logic into knots to avoid admitting culpability. Both brands and politicians seem to be making clear they would like the humble citizen consumer to do as they say, not as they do - and people have started to notice.
The chairman of BBH Asia recently penned 100 Things Every Planner Should Know, but much of the advice gleaned from a long and storied career in advertising is broadly applicable. His sixth point was:
“Actions speak louder than words, but actions are harder, so clients keep asking for ads. Keep pushing them for actions anyway. They will thank you in the end. Maybe.”
This is more important now than ever. Brands stepping up to communicate their actions, their internal and external initiatives and commitments to the difficult task of change, are to be lauded. Otherwise, they risk being accused of commercializing tragedy. All brand advertising, regardless of the message, has commercial intent, otherwise the investment could not be justified.
We don’t need any more ads about equality from brands that don’t have their house in order or aren’t putting their money where their mouth is - we need action. We need to keep pushing our clients. A principle, as Mr Bernbach liked to say, is only a principle when it costs you money. Brands should do things and then tell people, not tell people to do things.