Activism in Advertising: What Brands Are Getting Wrong

Heineken #OpenYourWorld Campaign

More and more frequently, we’re seeing brands take a seemingly more altruistic approach in their advertising. While not a new phenomenon, in 2017 this trend seems to have ramped up with the advent of a more politically and socially engaged audience, which undoubtedly has links to the election of Donald Trump and the rise of his like. This year’s SuperBowl in the US even included an ad about a Mexican mother and daughter trying to cross the border, which had to be edited so as not to link too directly to Trump’s infamous wall.

“Companies so often miss the mark with the message they’re trying to convey.”

But this trend of activism in advertising doesn’t always sit well with consumers, for two main reasons. First and foremost, because companies so often miss the mark with the message they’re trying to convey. Dove, with their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, has been guilty of this on more than one occasion, such as the ‘body-shaped’ shower gel bottles that hit the shelves in May. Skittles, too, were questioned on their limited edition white Pride bags, which removed all colour because ‘during Pride only one rainbow matters’ – which for some, smacked a little too much of racism.

I barely think I need to remind anyone about the Kendall Jenner/Pepsi debacle back in April, which somehow managed to blatantly co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement whilst erasing its message entirely. Bland signs telling people to ‘join the conversation!’ (about what?) and happy-go-lucky protesters posing for selfies flood the street, and peace is bought between demonstrators and police with a can of Pepsi. Under ‘tone-deaf’ in every online dictionary, they should play this advertisement.

Another ‘activism campaign’, Heineken’s ‘Worlds Apart’ experiment, paired a feminist, a climate change advocate and a transgender woman with a member of the ‘new right’, climate change denier and a transphobe. Its message gave some people conflicted feelings–especially the pairing of the trans woman and the transphobic man. While it’s hard to imagine aggressive hostility or violence occurring whilst being filmed for an ‘experiment’ run by a beer giant, with trans women (especially trans women of colour) being murdered at an alarming rate in blatant hate crimes, some feel it unwise to suggest that such differences can be solved over a refreshing beer. To even suggest such ignorance and bigotry can be boiled down to a simple ‘difference’ is pretty damn insulting.

“At the end of the day, these companies are trying to sell us something.”

Even for those who might not take issue with the actual presentation of these brands’ ‘socially aware’ ad campaigns, the ‘we care’ message doesn’t always sit well. Raising awareness is a big part of activism, however it’s hard to forget that, at the end of the day, these companies are trying to sell us something… and it’s not social engagement.

Make no mistake; if jumping on the activism wagon wasn’t testing well with audiences and endearing them to brands, these multi-million dollar companies wouldn’t be donning (or ditching) rainbows for LGBTQ+ rights or depicting empathetic refugees in their advertisements. The reason activism in advertising is having a boom right now isn’t because big companies are more switched on to the plight of minorities–it’s because it’s shown to be a good way to push units. As cynical as this sounds, it’s hard to ignore the motivations behind this surge in socially aware branding.

“What seems relatively clear is that these companies aren’t having extensive, meaningful conversations with the communities in which they are trying to represent.”

Personally, I feel more comfortable with brands pushing a social justice message when there’s actual money being sent to the causes they claim to be so passionate about. But even that doesn’t make up for when the messages they’re sending either undermine legitimate movements or promote harmful ideas.

What seems relatively clear is that these companies aren’t having extensive, meaningful conversations with the communities they are trying to represent (although this rather excellent Pepsi ad parody by SNL imagines what those conversations might look like). With input from (multiple) members of these communities, brands might at least produce something that truly promotes the values and concerns of minorities–even if they are only doing it to move product.

Image via Heineken

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