Sunday, 12 January 2014

Women & Responsible Advertising: A Difficult Relationship

Special K’s 'Shhhhut Down Fat Talk' campaign in the US follows in the same welcome steps as Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’. Both campaigns remind us, women, of how we unnecessarily put ourselves down on account of our looks and encourage us to quit this relentless self-criticism. These brands are leading the way in creating a new kind of feminine ideal to strive for – not the polished ‘Barbie’ look that is impossible for real women to attain, but a healthy, natural confidence that ultimately makes women happier and more attractive.  

Whilst this trend is highly commendable, it is clearly driven by a commercial market opportunity. Women who buy into these brands are tired of ads telling them they are not young, thin or beautiful enough – instead they want to identify with the real-looking self-assured women from the likes of Special K, Dove & No7 (see below). Marketing directors of these companies can deservedly pat themselves on the back - they are delivering shareholder value AND driving an ethical cultural trend. 

That advertising is critical to shaping our social and cultural views (including the role of women) has been clear for long enough. But when the commissioning CMO’s KPIs are sales figures and market share, the campaign’s objectives have to reflect that. It is wonderful when brands can successfully differentiate themselves on the grounds of meaningful values (e.g. Patagonia), yet marketing’s success is defined in commercial terms. Whilst all advertising has to be responsible, its primary role is to represent the brand that pays for its existence, rather than being the moral guiding light of cultural and social norms.*

This raises interesting questions for brands that are not specifically positioned as ‘empowering’ contemporary women. Asda’s Christmas 2012 ad caused an uproar because some felt its portrayal of the tired mum doing all the work reinforced outdated gender stereotypes. At the same time, many mums loved the ad and felt that it was a realistic representation of their roles. In fact, market research showed that in 86% of Asda’s customers’ homes women were indeed in charge of the Christmas preparations.  

It would have been ideal if Asda had found a way to engage their target audience at the same time as promoting gender equality. But is it fair to hold them accountable for not pushing this agenda further than their customers would have been comfortable with?   

We are right to recoil at the sexist ads from the 1950’s. Their objectified representation of women owes a lot to the fact that most advertising executives were men, who (in the absence of women in their midst) propagated the existing conservative attitudes towards gender roles rather than challenging them. Yet we also have to be sympathetic to these men, much as we might hate their views. After all, their livelihoods depended on selling a particular product - not on liberating women.

As a society we have done very well in recognizing the importance of responsible advertising and holding accountable those who trespass it.  However, commercial brands will always have to promote the values that can deliver the best commercial returns. It is therefore our responsibility as consumers to make sure that companies’ commercial and ethical objectives are aligned, by choosing products and services from the brands we respect. That way the marketers’ challenge will become ‘how do I do the right thing in a differentiated way’ rather than ‘do I prioritise my job or my conscience.’ 

*This excludes campaigns commissioned specifically to promote certain cultural and social values, e.g. anti-discrimination campaigns by public services

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Curious Case of The Kidnapped Man (or Why Cargiant Should Have Locked Down Its Proposition Before Launching a Mass Media Campaign)

It’s not often that marketers see ads that make us want to weep in embarrassment for the whole profession. Yet I just do not understand how these Cargiant’s ads came to grace the side of 6 (yes, six!) buses that I saw in the space of two hours. 

‘We don’t do hassle’ they tell us. Excellent. Back-to-basics, stripped down service appeals to those who know what they want and just want to get on with it. But wait – it says ‘no hard sell, just helpful advisors.’ So they DO distinguish themselves on their helpful service?     

Confused about the service we might be, but still none the wiser about what they actually sell (or advise on, hassle-free.) Seek out clues. The large, bold ‘Cargiant’ is the next thing that jumps out. That’s probably what this ad is advertising. Whatever it is that Cargiant might do, apparently they offer ‘giant choice’ AND ‘giant savings.’ Neither of these messages in any way tie in with the other two service-related ones, but we’ll overlook that. There are more exciting riddles to solve, like who’s the distressed kidnapped man in the middle? No, wait, he’s holding his hands there voluntarily, sans cuffs. Still none the wiser about the duck tape.

‘A better way to buy a car’ we finally read, and it all falls into place. Cargiant sells cars. The website is there, so they probably do it online. Without hassle and without hard selling, but with helpful advice and lots of choice and lots of savings. That’s what distinguishes them from other companies that sell cars. Wait, what was the start of that list again?

The grand irony is that Cargiant actually seems to have a lot to say for itself. It’s the world’s largest used car dealership. They offer the best price guarantee. With 40 years experience they are absolute experts.  And with an army of skilled mechanics and 13 acres of workshops, your car’s service cannot be in better hands.

It takes a lot to create a great campaign for a mediocre offering. Turning a successful, simple brand with clearly articulated benefits into a confusing and bland ad accompanied by irrelevant imagery (duck tape!) must take even more. If brand owners cannot decide what their proposition is, the last thing they should do is mix 4 different ones and put the dilemma to the unsuspecting public.

Somewhere, media buyers are chuckling to themselves. With half of the capital’s buses sporting this curious T-sides, they are the only winning party in this campaign. 

Monday, 29 April 2013

On The Ethics Of Ethical Fashion

The recent launch of H&M’s Conscious collection is the latest in a series of high street brands putting social and environmental responsibility at the core of their campaigns. For example, last year we saw Marks & Spencer and Puma launch Shwopping and Bring Me Back initiatives that encouraged consumers to recycle their used clothing rather than send it to the landfill. A personal favorite of mine is the Diesel+Edun Spring 2013 collaboration, which focuses on developing sustainable trade relationships with Africa. If ethical fashion ever was the remit of hippies and frumpy housewives, that era is clearly over
There is a good business case for CEOs to turn their heads in this direction. In 2009 The Carbon Trust estimated that large UK businesses could save £1.6bn a year by improving the efficiency of their supply chains. Clearly, it pays to be nice to the environment – and in more ways than one. Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia recently ran a campaign asking consumers NOT to buy their products due to their environmental impact. To illustrate the point, Patagonia even outlined how much waste the product produces in each stage of the supply chain through their Footprint Chronicles site. Despite economic downturn, Patagonia’s sales hit an all-time record. In the words of their Director of Environmental Strategy, Jill Dumain, “If I wanted to make the most money possible, I would invest in environmentally responsible supply chains … these are the best years in our company’s history.
Patagonia’s transparency reinforces customers’ trust in its brand; it illustrates that their actions abide by the values the company was built on. The case is quite different with a brand like H&M, which has historically been more associated with sweatshops than CSR. On top of that, while Patagonia markets its premium products based on brand values, H&M’s customers tend to be driven more by the low prices of its fashion goods than the ideals that sit behind them. And yet H&M is clearly putting social and environmental responsibility at the forefront of their marketing efforts by sponsoring ethical fashion forums, claiming the title of the world’s largest organic cotton buyer and offering vouchers in return for recycled clothing from any brands

Not everyone is convinced though. Clean Clothes Campaign (a Netherlands-based group dedicated to improving the lives of garment industry workers) launched a spoof Unconscious campaign to highlight the fact that the workers who made the ‘Conscious’ clothes are chronically overworked and undernourished. In Cambodia alone, more than 2900 workers have collapsed since 2010, several hundred of them at H&M suppliers
The H&M website proudly lists its achievements in improving supply chain transparency and workers’ livelihoods, such as the recent publishing of all its factories and H&M’s role in negotiating higher wages for Cambodian workers. Yet it does not tell us that this came after a scandalous 2-day hunger strike at the Kingsland factory in Phnom Penhm, where women were paid $60 a month to produce underwear for H&M and Walmart. The minimum wage in the country is $75, although according to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance a worker and her family need a monthly income of $274 to cover basic needs. And it wasn’t even this appalling pay that caused the strike, but the fact that the factory closed and its owner had fled without paying the workers the wages they were owed. 

Whatever the backstory, it is clear that H&M know they need to be addressing these issues. Ultimately it is they who are responsible for ensuring that supply chains stand up to ethical scrutiny. Such problems cannot be resolved overnight and we can see their steps in the right direction, so it’s not entirely fair to see them as hypocritical the way the Unconscious Campaign does. And yet, we need the likes Clean Clothes Campaign to keep tabs on the likes of H&M to ensure that this transformation – which they claim to be putting at the forefront of their agenda – is indeed underway. Shaming big brands might annoy the C-suite and embarrass their advertising execs, but this pressure is a productive one. It acts as the conscience to some of the most powerful organizations in the world, and helps change it for the better.