Prominent ad campaigns once dictated water-cooler talk and set the cultural agenda. Today, they’d be far too risky to ever be approved
Looking at advertising campaigns on television today, an extraterrestrial from another galaxy would think we are a severe species. Furthermore, this visitor would assume, perhaps correctly, that it was the role of advertising agencies to inform, educate, and impart moral lessons on societies – anything other than sell goods.
This visitor would report back to their extraterrestrial superiors that ad execs on Earth form a sort of priestly class, who give hope to their subjects by presenting us with a fictional representation of a better world to come. An extraterrestrial ad exec may rightly wonder how Earth companies sell anything at all.
The legendary ad executive Trevor Beattie – responsible for the iconic Wonderbra’s “Hello Boys” and French Connection’s “Fcuk” campaigns – put it this way: “Ads that are made today are not commercials, but mood films. There is only one emotion in advertising now – and it is to indicate that brands are virtuous and worthy of your business.”
If woke has conquered adland, then we are all the poorer for it.
“The tone of voice is the same for every brand,” says Beattie. “I try to tell them that other emotions – including humour – are available while stocks last.”
To be sure, adland is struggling. Across industries, advertising budgets are being slashed as marketing execs generate more and more byzantine metrics to demonstrate their value. There are more ways than ever before to identify and target audiences, yet it is increasingly rare for an ad campaign to capture peoples’ imagination.
Even at their most risqué, prominent ad campaigns once dictated water-cooler talk and set the cultural agenda. Beer commercials once engaged and satirised national stereotypes – like Carling’s memorable “sunbeds” spot from 1993. They took risks in terms of sexual norms, like the provocative 1985 Levi’s 501 ad with Nick Kamen. And they went against the grain of cultural taboos, imagining mixed-race and same-sex families like Oliver Toscani’s revolutionary photography for Benetton.
All of these campaigns, forever embedded in the cultural memory, are far too risky for an ad exec ever to approve now.
The celebrated creative Dave Trott explains that brands might be shooting themselves in the foot by focusing too much on targeting audiences based on identity. This approach fractures messaging and hampers efforts to create a distinctive tone of voice for the brand.
“Brands are not focused on people any more, they prefer to communicate issues,” he says. “This means a sad loss of humour.” From Trott’s perspective, the way to forge effective communications is to focus on the core truths that unite people of all races, sexes, classes, ages, religions, or nationalities. “Those categories,” he says “are just superficial differences.”
There is a growing sense among my colleagues that the virtue-signalling that guides advertising decisions is hurting sales. Excessive focus-grouping, the echo chamber created by the industry’s Hackney-hipster homogeneity and awards-crazed processes have detached the creative process from the end result – to produce captivating, witty, humorous, makes-you-think-twice ad campaigns that challenge and stimulate the imagination.
No doubt, there has been much positive change since the freewheeling, devil-may-care attitudes of the Eighties and the risqué campaigns that they produced. Many of these campaigns were laden with misogyny and stereotypes that wouldn’t pass muster today. It was only in 2011 that Yorkie still sold it’s “Not For Girls” chocolate bar, and Mr. Clean encouraged women to “get back to the job that really matters”. One marvels that these campaigns were ever approved, and in today’s gender-, race- and sexuality-diverse workplaces, it’s more than likely they would have been axed long before they could see the light of day.
But brands have not always fared better, in recent days, when there’s too much hand-wringing about causing offence. This has made advertising bland, afraid to engage satirically with society as it exists, and, at worst, blatantly cynical.
Pepsi’s TV campaign, released at the height of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, featured Kendall Jenner reconciling police and protesters over a can of Pepsi. It drew widespread for trivialising the movement and was finally withdrawn. And Gillette, who recently published a short film referencing bullying, the #MeToo movement and toxic masculinity, was widely lampooned its opportunism and triteness. Both hurt sales figures.
Young people today know when they are being sold to, and attempts to cash in on social movements have proven tricky territory for brands trying to make themselves relevant by taking a position on divisive subjects.
Part of the cynicism of these campaigns comes from the fact that, in today’s globalised economy, brands project different values in different markets. Advanced algorithms mean there are ways of ensuring that people get the messaging they want to hear. Not many brands’ feverish rainbow-washing throughout Pride month extended to their Russian or Middle Eastern operations.
Consequently, consumers smell a rat. The resultant negativity surrounding attempts to project social values has prompted some in the advertising world to say “go woke, go broke” – that a lack of true backbone in brands will inevitably be sniffed out and dent sales.
Though our cultural attitudes have shifted, the goal of advertising has not. And if woke advertising cannot deliver the sales by every ad exec will be judged, then brands will have to find a new creative mode which allows them provoke, make laugh and shape cultural narratives rather than cynically seize on them.
Advertising can still – and indeed must – provoke and engage audiences with a wide range of emotions if it is to return to its former role of shaping cultural conversations. Companies need to be able to navigate controversial topics with the conviction, lightness, edginess and sarcasm which has always characterised great advertising.
And they can. As Hermeti Balarin, partner at Mother London, put it: “Edgy creativity not only can, but does exist in this age of cancel culture. All that brands need is a complete understanding of who they are, what they represent and what their voice is like. Once a brand fundamentally understands that, they can appear almost anywhere at any time and join any conversation they want. Edgy or not.”
As we come more and more to realise the social consequences of media siloes and echo chambers, I am of the belief that advertising has a role to play in catering to and thereby cultivating a mainstream. It does so by focusing on what American advertising legend Bill Bernbach called “simple, timeless human truths” – gripes and groans, reversals of fortune, the universal ironies that unify us and make us laugh.
This is not just about effective marketing, but also about what role advertising has to play in an increasingly fractious society.
The final word goes to Dave Trott: “To understand people,” he says, “we need to understand not what makes them different, but what makes them the same.”