The Culture Wars: Advertising

Tamara Thompson
Mar 7, 2019 · 11 min read
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The year is 1971 and the culture war is raging. Richard Nixon is President. The New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers. Large-scale May Day protests against the Vietnam War lead to mass arrests. Cigarette advertising is banned from television. Greenpeace is born, signaling the rise of the environmental movement. Sixty-percent of the American public is opposed to the Vietnam War. The 26th Amendment is ratified lowering the voting age to age 18. Ping Pong Diplomacy delights the public as the U.S. table tennis team visits the People’s Republic of China.

Confidence in government and business begin the long, slow decline that continues to this day.

One bright light tapped the best of who Americans want to be via a commercial and song that immediately struck a chord. The Coca-Cola Company and its bottlers received more than 100,000 letters about the commercial and listeners called radio stations requesting to hear the song.

“So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.” — Bill Backer

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Despite a deeply divided country and tumultuous time, Coke was able to tap into our better angels. This commercial was so loved it still tops favorite advertising lists, serves as a halo for Coke, and was even revived in the finale of the famed Mad Men series.

Fast forward nearly fifty years from Teach the World to Sing and we see western culture more divided than ever. Largely on political and ideological lines. Social and identity issues are at the forefront of media, entertainment, and advertising.

In the early 2000’s Dove introduced their Campaign for Real Beauty. Although the company faced some initial skepticism their consistency and advocacy for aligning beauty with real women has facilitated a conversation and helped to evolve expectations of beauty. Much like the Coke commercial, Dove celebrated what is good in people and promoted a view of how we want to be recognized.

Following in Dove’s footsteps, Always sought to break stereotypes with their Like a Girl campaign. The advertising challenged both male and female expectations and sought to champion confidence and ability in girls. The campaign, by tapping into an empowering view of girls was heralded by males and females alike.

Example after example was showing marketers that social message marketing is not just good for society, it can be good for the brand.

While true, finding the right stance is tricky business. In some cases advertising has created controversy for brands and created a deeper societal divide along with it.

Even companies with the best intentions have made costly missteps. Birthing the mantra, Get Woke, Go Broke.

Despite over a decade of advocacy for women and natural beauty, Dove was widely attacked on social media with claims of racism over a commercial for body-wash. While the black actress in the commercial spoke out quickly saying people were reading something into the commercial that was not intended, that it was simply an issue of poor editing choices, it was too late. The commercial sparked activists to point out other reasons to believe Dove was racially insensitive. The video was pulled immediately.

Similarly, Pepsi’s attempt to address race relations earned the ire of pretty much everyone, including Black Lives Matter. It was pulled the next day, it inspired an SNL skit , and continues to be the butt of jokes.

A company spokesperson responded saying “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize to Kendall Jenner for putting her in this position.”

Pepsi’s desire to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding is similar to Coke’s 1971 vision of a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples. So what exactly went wrong?

Why was Pepsi called tone-deaf and said to be using different ethnicities and religions as props to sell soda when Coke wasn’t? Social media activism is surely a part of it. Mostly though, in their attempt to promote unity they featured stereotypes. In their attempt to call for the calming of social tensions, they used a reality show star and a soft drink as a solution. Perhaps even more it’s because they set up a scenario that was about sides, identities, and differences. In that environment unity gets lost.

By contrast, the 1971 Coke commercial spoke to a hope that unified everyone. There were no sides, just our better angels together with a sincere hope of creating a peaceful world.

Soon after, Heineken launched the World’s Apart ad on YouTube. Although they identified differences they allowed people to get to know the ‘other’ before sides were revealed. It spoke to the best of who we are and how to overcome the worse of who we can be.

Fast Company expressed it this way “Earlier this month, Pepsi tried to walk in step with the #Resistance, and ended up falling on its face. Hard. The company’s tone-deaf-ad which used Black Lives Matter iconography and Kendall Jenner to suggest carbonated beverages can heal America’s wounds -inspired such a seething backlash it was pulled almost instantly, and savagely parodied. It would have been a fine time for Coca-Cola to step up and deliver a perfectly calibrated topical ad, thereby eating Pepsi’s lunch. In truth, though, Coke had to do absolutely nothing to achieve the same result. Instead, Heineken has come along a couple of weeks later with an ad that gets to the heart of the political engagement in a straightforward way that makes Pepsi’s self-congratulatory ad seem even more embarrassing.”

It was unclear how it would work out for Nike. The Kaepernick controversy had been brewing for so long and was incredibly divisive so it was no surprise when the support for Nike (and the backlash against them) was loud and immediate. The stock dropped. Shoe-burns spread like wildfire on social media (some videos mocking the shoe-burners). And, of course, Trump tweeted.

Celebrating the potential of the individual to create change is baked into the DNA of Nike.

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But Nike is no stranger to taking a stand. Even more, celebrating the potential of the individual to create change is baked into the DNA of Nike. Mostly, Nike knows their audience well and their core audience strongly supported the move. “The Kaepernick campaign is resonating with the company’s core customer base, such as millennial and Generation Z men, in a way that is authentic, culturally relevant, experiential and emotionally engaging” said one analyst.

Nike gained 170,000 followers on Instagram and the Kaepernick ad was their most liked Instagram post ever. According to a Harris poll, twenty-nine percent of young men said they would buy Nike products in the future because of the Kaepernick campaign.

A Colorado sporting goods store that stopped carrying Nike because of the Kaepernick signing has recently gone out of business. Until the recent shoe blow out, Nike sales and stock were at all-time highs. Even still, the campaign has birthed snarky memes but that actually seems to have less to do with Kaepernick, and more to do with the ability of the format to make a great template for sarcasm.

Although it didn’t take much of a social hit, Burger King’s Pink Tax commercial was derided because it came across as using identity politics for social justice credibility. The core problem is simply because BK was not tackling an issue that has anything to do with their category, thus without any skin in the game it seemed like pandering.

And then came Gillette. It’s hard to sort through the rubble of the post-release explosion to know for sure how Gillette will fare. It seems likely that Gillette wasn’t surprised by the reaction as a P&G spokeswoman told Bloomberg:

“We knew this film might be polarizing. Conversations on these profound social issues can be difficult for all sides but we believe they are important and that, by sparking the discussion, we can play a part in creating meaningful and positive change.”

Gillette was already losing customers and especially struggling to gain younger buyers. In 2012, Dollar Shave shook up the industry with mail order convenience, an everyman identity, bro humor, and importantly by attacking the very selling points (technology and sex-appeal) that Gillette had been advertising for years.

At the same time, Harry’s came at them by staking out a blade-quality positioning (think German-engineering of blades) while still making the brand fun, affordable, and convenient. Although you can buy Harry’s in retail, they push their blade-replacement subscription model heavily.

Gillette was already struggling with the younger audience so they obviously needed to make changes and this may have been a good one. According to Harris polling data more than half of younger men (Gen Z and Millennial) reacted positively, while their dads (Baby Boomers) were more likely to be offended. Fifty-seven percent of the younger audience said they would be more likely to consider Gillette. The same proportion of Boomers said they are now less likely.

Time will tell if this was the right approach. It’s more likely to come down to why the younger audience wasn’t choosing Gillette in the first place. If price and convenience were the primary drivers then tackling social issues won’t change anything. If, in the process, they offended their current buyers they may be in for a bumpy ride.

Although reaction was quick and loud (both pro and con) the conversation didn’t have much to do with razors at all. Quite frankly, it was a continuation of the same argument already happening between the left and the right.

While the mainstream media reported positively about the campaign in both the US and UK, independent YouTubers were offended and loudly so. Since YouTubers tend to be younger, it was easy to see that the anger at the message was not just among the older audience as the Harris poll suggests.

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A search for “Gillette Commercial” on YouTube will bring up countless rants.

There were also female YouTubers who came out to defend their son, dad, brother, husband, boyfriend. They seemed even more outraged than some of the men because that believe it portrayed their loved one (one among all men) as predators. By contrast, on Twitter the majority of women speaking out praised the film.

As it always is with the controversy of the week Twitter was ablaze with pro/con arguments followed by the inevitable blocking. Dollar Shave was often tagged in social media conversations with comments like “@dollarshave @gillette sent me.” This would result in back and forth arguments that can only seem to get this heated on Twitter.

#GilletteMemes popped up on Instagram. A hilarious parody of a misogynistic razor was offered as a response.

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One of many #GilletteMemes on Instagram

At the same time, a real response to Gillette was offered by Egard Watch Company. Their What is a Man commercial quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Youtube. Egard, a little known brand, quickly made fans (and sales) by celebrating the good in men and highlighting the hardships they face.

Although the message probably only resonated on the reverse L/R party lines that Gillette did, it did resonate. Soon after their YouTube response made the rounds, the CEO released the following message on their website:

“The positive response to our message has allowed us to start donating to charities! We will be donating $10,000 USD To the Bob Woodruff Foundation this week! We hope to continue making numerous donations year round. Thank you all for giving us an opportunity to give back. Due to the unexpected overwhelming response we are back-ordered on many units. Please bear with us. We are accepting pre-orders as we are making new inventory. The response is beyond appreciated. Every order will be fulfilled. We want to be completely transparent about the wait.”

Offense to the Gillette film can be summed up as thinking the brand believes maleness is toxic. That Gillette believes their own customers must change in order to be good men.

If you contrast Gillette with the Always or Dove campaigns the difference is obvious. Always and Dove are celebrating the inherent rightness of girls and women. In 1971, Coke celebrated peace and human unity with Teach the World to Sing. Nike celebrated the power of courage and ideals. One wonders how the response would have been different if Gillette had sought to encourage goodness by celebrating goodness. We’ll never know. In the end, this may have been exactly what Gillette needed to boost their business.


3/20/19 update

Coming on the heels of the Gillette film which launched 1/14/19, a Gallup poll on attitudes about sexual harassment in the workplace was fielded (February 12–28). The survey shows that concern about sexual harassment in the workplace has actually decreased. Gallup’s report U.S. Men Less Concerned Than in 2017 About Sexual Harassment revealed that in February 2019 both men and women see sexual harassment in the workplace as less of a problem than they used to. While the drops among women are negligible, the decline for men is dramatic. The report shows belief that sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem dropped by ten percentage points for men over age 50 and a whopping 16 percentage points for men under 50. That said, when breaking down to just men age 18–34 we do see higher levels of concern. Belief that it’s a problem is equal across all levels of eduction. It’s higher among caucasian than non-caucasian men. More than anything, this appears to be a party-line message with 80% of male democrats saying the issue is a problem, while 64% of independents and 39% of republicans do. One question all corporations need to consider is whether it’s wise to align on party lines when the majority of voters are independent. We’ll continue to watch for whether a bold stand like one this can both fuel business and solve social ills.

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