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Snowflakes, Me Too and Brexit: Should Brands Tackle Culturally Sensitive Topics?

The Influencers 487 Add to collection

INFLUENCER: In the age of political ‘wokeness’, RAPP UK's Perla Bloom responds to the latest Gillette ad

Snowflakes, Me Too and Brexit: Should Brands Tackle Culturally Sensitive Topics?

Gillette’s latest ad - tackling the controversial topic of toxic masculinity - caused a lot of backlash about the brand’s representation of men. But there was an equal and opposite reaction championing the ad for making the necessary cultural commentary on gender norms in our society. Is polarising our target audience in this way a bad thing for brands? Should they stay away from it? 

The reaction to Gillette’s ad coincides with the growing trend of Neo Civility, noted in Foresight Factory’s 2019 Trending Report, which showed that while 64% of British adults agree that ‘people are offended too easily’, an equal 63% of global adults say that ‘it should be illegal to write offensive comments about people on social media’. It’s a trend too big to ignore as, much like Brexit, these splits in opinion on our society show a growing sensitivity towards cultural, social and political nuances in the media and in advertising, now demonstrated by the fact that ads which show ‘harmful’ gender stereotypes will be banned by the ASA this year. 

So, what can brands do in an age of cultural sensitivity, where everyone has an opinion about everything, and where the term ‘snowflake’ has been coined to describe a whole generation who are deemed to take offence too easily? Are we doomed to never disrupt effectively again?

I think that we can learn something from brands who have recently attempted to challenge all of the above. 

In the instance of Gillette’s commentary on gender, it’s becoming clear that brands who have previously contributed to gender stereotypes now have a job to do when it comes to counteracting them, even if it goes against the brand’s own previous messaging. Gillette’s previous ad from the eighties (no, it isn’t a parody) shows men doing ‘manly’ things: working at their ‘manly’ occupations; playing traditionally ‘manly’ sports with other ‘manly’ men (the soundtrack belting out ‘YOU’RE THE CHAMPIOOOON’ in the shot put scene); as well as impressing beautiful women (whose existence in the advert is simply to be an admiring audience to the ‘manly’ exploits). It’s a far cry from their 2019 ad. In fact it is both a rejection of the previous attitude and a confirmation that brands have a responsibility to step up.

But, is all publicity good publicity, even when certain brands get it wrong, specifically about race?

Dolce & Gabbana tried to resonate with its Chinese consumers in November 2018, however they suffered a serious cultural ‘faux pas’ with their 'chopsticks eating' ad, where a Chinese model poked at a pizza with her chopsticks under a VO of "don't attempt to use the chopsticks as knives, just use your chopsticks like pliers."

The Chinese government banned the brand’s Shanghai show, so that season’s collection wasn’t shown to their key market. From this we learn that it’s imperative to make meaningful insights that fully understand different markets and cultures. It’s not that hard to speak to people who have experienced living in the culture concerned; scour partner agencies and clients for interview subjects; corner family and friends or even just speak to people in the pub! 

The recent British Army posters make a risqué generational commentary in an attempt to recruit young people. They invited backlash in the process by directly addressing younger millennials and Gen Z as ultra sensitive 'snowflakes' who are phone-obsessed selfie-taking gamers. This was admittedly brave and built on insights about how some people criticise the younger generations, but I didn’t feel that the risk paid off - the execution was alienating the very people they were attempting to target by making an ill-fitting one size fits all commentary. Brands need to be careful how they execute insight but at the same time avoid pigeon-holing and making sweeping statements about groups of people when attempting social commentary. 

HSBC’s ad, ‘We Are Not An Island’ has been labelled a political ‘anti-Brexit’ campaign (even though the brand denies this). The campaign’s posters were segmented into four city-specific versions for London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham to avoid generalisation and on the whole received a pretty positive reaction. Arguably, it is especially effective because it counteracts the grassroots feeling that the bank is only interested in the wealthy and the elite. So, even when taking on a political hot potato, making a statement and even offending a large proportion of your ‘Leave’ audience, can work if it means aligning with a positive message.

Political, cultural and social sensitivity might be a little risky, but the evidence shows that brands CAN use it to their advantage to make well thought out social commentary with the right messages, aligned to the attitudes of their target audiences. The unnecessary tone-deaf, inauthentic communications are easily avoided by truly understanding your target audience and all their individual traits, and not making broad assumptions.

This age of political ‘wokeness’ represents a real advantage for brands and I genuinely hope that more of them continue to strike the right cord of disruption.

Perla Bloom is junior strategist at RAPP UK

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RAPP, Tue, 22 Jan 2019 12:54:56 GMT