Words matter - though advertising alone won’t solve the biggest economic, social, and political problems, the messages it broadcasts and the promises it and brands make are vital, argues Faris Yakob. 

There has been a raft of book titles in the last few years that include the famed F-word. Without wanting to overuse my opener, there are titles that direct us to subtly not give one or consider what one we should have for dinner, and a line of books nominally for children starting with “Go the F to Sleep”. 

You can see from my squeamish usage that it’s not comfortable for me to write the word out in full. I am an adult and I know the audience for this column is, for sure, entirely composed of adults, whom I would have no issue saying the word in front of. 

But I am not actually speaking here, I’m writing in an at least somewhat professional context and I can’t quite bring myself to write it. Speech is ephemeral but writing lasts, which is why we often ask people to write promises down. 

Book publishers tend to be similar, they use asterisks (children might see it, after all). But why is that and why use expletives at all? I’d argue out of respect for language. Curse words still retain some linguistic heft and to utilize them profligately diminishes that. When we are on stage, at conferences or for clients, I don’t like to swear but the judicious deployment of an F-Bomb from my very presentable presenting partner can have a lot of impact. 

Words should be chosen with laser-like precision, because, as the title of a lovely book about rhetoric proclaims, words (can be) like loaded pistols. Using the F word is designed to shock through transgressive aesthetics, to suggest rebellion, a radical break from the assumptions of the genre. 

An adman, thinker and writer I have admired and learned extensively from since I joined the industry is obviously sensitive to the power of words – so when Richard Huntington kindly sent me his new publication - “What the F*** is Going On?” - I appreciated that Saatchi was aiming to shock (something they have always been known for) and to attract attention to their research. Beyond that, the publication is at heart a ‘political pamphlet’ in the tradition thereof: a clarion call casting a sober eye on the current state of the nation. 

To answer their titular question the team ventured out of London and into people’s homes for ethnographically inspired interviews, combined with expert insight, including from firebrand anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe. 

What they found is dire. Britons are “worried, tired and desperate for hope.” They are profoundly pessimistic about the prospects for the country, economically and politically. Living standards are visibly declining as the cost of living rises with accompanying headlines about record corporate profits. 

The eight articulated grievances cover the sense that ‘no one is in control’ of a ‘living nightmare’ where everyone is ‘getting angrier’ and finding little to be proud of. That the endless infractions of those in power that never trigger commensurate consequences has led people to believe the system is rigged against them as every promise from that same group has been shown to be more hollow than the last. 

The pamphlet suggests three virtues that help people cope centered on community, decency and moments of joy. Combined with the situation analysis, this leads to various imperatives for brands, primarily about showing up for people “with humility, empathy and respect”. 

A brand is, in its most recent re-articulation coming out of Cannes from Roger Martin, a “promise to the customer” that is made and fulfilled so consistently that a customer has complete confidence in it. That promise needs to convince jaded consumers that the company behind it is committed to acting with decency, by considering more than just its bottom line. 

A promise isn’t simply an utterance. It is a ‘speech act’, an action carried out with speech, it creates expectations through obligations. Advertising campaigns aren’t radical solutions to complex economic problems but they can be enough to support relevant communities, bring a little joy to people’s day, and reflect the best of what the country hopes it can be. If we want customers to believe the system isn’t rigged, they have to believe corporations are living up to their promises, especially when they claim to be helping. 

As the CMXO of McDonald’s, Tariq Hassan said, “last time I checked no customer simply wants to be ‘acquired’” - another reminder to consider the language we use in marketing. Indeed the fusion of marketing and customer experience under one purview suggests this. 

While Ehrenberg-Bass has demonstrated that growth comes from penetration, that never meant we could treat customers badly, especially when we represent the biggest brands. Our light buyers can be a very broad base, and consistently negative experiences will eventually dilute the impact of even ground-breaking brand work by changing the consumers’ expectations. Perhaps this explains the recent successes of McDonald’s, which has invested heavily in both excellent, strategic advertising and customer experiences, as compared to PR-powered-previous-Cannes-darling Burger King, which has been challenged by legacy stores, menus and technology. 

The power of corporations is immense, and, as all good superheroes know, with great power comes great responsibility - not just to shareholders but, even more importantly, in living up to their promises to customers, for they are the source of shareholder value. That’s what the f*** needs to happen.