I Didn’t Want To Talk About Kendall…

According to a Guardian article I read recently, these days ‘Sex Doesn’t Sell, But Activism Does’. A good headline for sure — but is that entirely true?

In the last 5 years, it seems as though brands all over the world have collectively started to develop a social conscience. It’s become increasingly commonplace to see mainstream brands not only standing up for the things they ‘believe in’, but crucially speak out against things they deem to be immoral and unjust in some way. This shift has been particularly evident in the last 12 months — think: Brexit, Trump, Syria, the female wage gap, trans visibility rights etc.) — and as a trend this has raised a series of complex questions. For instance:

1 → To what extent do brands have the right to weigh in on a specific social, cultural or political issue? 
2 → How is a particular brand’s plumb line or moral compass actually calibrated? 
3 → Are brands seen to be bandwagon-jumping or is their given stance substantiated by the company’s core values?
4 → Can brands that are part of larger corporations which have histories of being *less than* morally upstanding in their practices, actually assert an opinion of what is right and what is wrong?
5 → (Are moral absolutes even real?!)
6 → In taking a particular political stance, which consumers are being alienated in the process? Is it really worth isolating them?

Lucky for you (and me), I won’t be answering any of these questions. Because despite all of this being really interesting — when attempting to assess whether or not brands should take a formal stance on social and political issues — I think the more pertinent question is: do consumers actually care?

In summation I think it safe to say that the answer is more a ‘No’ than ‘Yes’. In a research study by SSRS, 58% of those polled, responded that they didn’t like when brands got political. They didn’t like brands sending out a message which positively and explicitly, endorsed one thing or another. Yet despite that stat, 72% of those respondents equally said that they were “not at all likely” to purchase a product from a brand they considered racist.

Variations in these results seem correlate with either implicit or explicit associations. The difference here has to do with the tacit knowledge. For the majority of consumers, all that is needed is an implicit confirmation that the brand they are supporting isn’t homophobic, xenophobic, racist, sexist, or bigoted in some way. That will actually suffice. A brand doesn’t need to take an overt social or political stance in order to become more relatable. In fact, brand activism can feel obtrusive, didactic, and more often than not opportunistic.

So what exactly do consumers care about? What can brands and agencies do to engage socially conscious audiences?

For a lot of consumers, tackling the lack of diversity and representation in media and advertising is a much more pressing issue than the rise of brand activism. In a report published by Lloyds Banking Group, it was revealed that minority are groups featured in less than 20% of advertising, with 65% of people stating that they would feel more favourable about a brand that promotes diversity.

How does the ‘lack of diversity’ issue actually play out in practice?

Last week, I had a really interesting chat with a member of the New Business team within the agency I was interning at. I had asked him to tell me a bit about pitches — how they work, who does what, presentation tips etc. It was then that I discovered, to my surprise, that as a New Business guy, he didn’t actually do any of the pitching. He and his team were very much behind the scenes, responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly on the day.

He started telling me about one of projects he had been working on recently. By the sounds of it, months of hard work had gone into building this pitch. A great narrative had been built around the brand by the strategists, tons of iterative work had been generated by designers; and after loads of wording and rewording, tweaking and changing, switching and scrapping — it was finally pitch perfect.

It’s 20 minutes before this pitch is about to be given, he’s running through the deck to check that everything is in order, and he comes across a slide which is headed up by one of the new major strap lines that the agency is about to propose to the brand.

He reads it once. Twice. And by the third time he’s convinced that there’s been a big mistake. “No one in their right minds would write this…”

Now seems a pretty good time to tell you two things: (1) that the pitch in question was for a well-known highstreet coffee chain, and (2) that the hilarious guy who’s telling me this story is one of very few (surprisingly few) people in this agency, who is not white.

The strap line that happened to catch his eye, made reference to the fact coffee orders — Cappuccinos, Americanos, Lattes etc — correspond in someway to different people’s skin-tones; suggesting therefore, that at this *unnamed* coffee chain: we have something for everyone(!)

Whilst I can definitely see how the intention of what was trying to be said was actually ostensibly inclusive, what emerged out of that original insight was a line that actually an overtly racist undertone. So, 10 minutes before the meeting, he brings this to the attention of his MD — they take his word for it, remove all traces of the tagline from the deck and ultimately win the pitch.

What was particularly interesting and alarming about this story was that despite the fact that dozens and dozens of intelligent minds had worked on and contributed to the project , no one else seemed to have picked up on the fact that the strap line read as racially insensitive or discriminatory. No one thought to flag it. And why not? The thought of how the line would read non-white customer was not factored in, because — put simply — no one who worked on the project had a non-white point of view.

The specifics in this story are largely unimportant, because what really matters is what this occurrence was indicative of. It was indicative of a situation which inadvertently explains (though in no way justifies) the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad Phenomenon.

I remember when I watched that advert for the first time, my first thought was — this was clearly formulated, executed, and ultimately approved by an all white team. Had there been more (or any) people from black and minority backgrounds present in the meetings that ultimately culminated in the creation of that ad, I’m fairly sure that the ad would either looked very different or would have probably been scrapped entirely.

We shouldn’t really have a situation in which someone unwittingly runs into racist strap line at the last moment and is forced to hurriedly remove all traces of it from existence. The line shouldn’t have even been in there in the first place. And the fact that it was — and the fact that Pepsi proudly released that ridiculously vapid and tone deaf ad — indicates a real need for more diverse employment, more diverse voices, viewpoints and contributions at every stage and every section within the Media category as a whole.