Protesting for profit? When ad campaigns go moral

Protesting for profit? When ad campaigns go moral – words Al Woods

Over the last few years, many major companies and their associated ad campaigns have been tapping into the liberal cultural zeitgeist.

For example, Lynx/Axe, the brand which for years had produced ads that have been described by the Huffington Post as infamously sexist, recently took an abrupt u-turn with their brand voice.

Axe’s excellent ‘Find your magic’ campaign promotes the idea of men celebrating what makes them unique, while Lynx’s 2015 hair styling ad launched in Australia featured a brief but unmissable gay kiss.

However, even though Trump’s disapproval can potentially boost your business’s stock within the same day, and typically left-leaning millennials make up the majority of the world’s population, challenging the status quo for a profit is a dangerous game, as we saw with the recent Pepsi ad debacle. For those of you who haven’t heard, Kendall Jenner and Pepsi have managed to run afoul of the whole internet with their attempt at a politically themed ad. If this marketing failure shows us anything, it’s that using your ‘morality’ to sell a product can easily backfire.


Is it art or is it ads?

Nicola Kemp, trends editor at advertising trade magazine Campaign, succinctly explained: “It’s a unique skill to have #boycottpepsi trending among both the right and the left. It managed to alienate both sides of an increasingly polarised consumer universe.”

However the advertising industry continuously straddles the line between corporate and creative. Artistic minds provide an integral part of both the production and creation of ads and their strategies. Not only that, but many famous filmmakers have tried their hand at TV advertising, such as Ridley Scott, Spike Lee and David Lynch.

If you begin to see ads as an extension of the art world, what is it that gives art and artistic messages so much more integrity and tastefulness? For example, Indian installation artist Owais Husain is known for exploring themes of identity and displacement and is inspired by both cultural and political shifts across the globe – themes that are particularly relevant in today’s political climate and of a similar vein to the Pepsi ad.

So what is it that makes the statements artists make with their craft so different to the statement made by Pepsi? After all, a great deal of successful art exists not only for the artist’s own benefit, but to be sold commercially.

At what point do we deem that a ‘statement’ ad goes too far?

Over the years, there have been many ads with important messages of one kind of another. For example, the ‘Like a girl’ campaign brought to us by feminine hygiene brand Always highlighted how we often put women and girls down by using the phrase “like a girl” as an insult.

Women’s rights are not only relevant to their product and to their audience, but they’re also something that Always have partnered with charities to fight for; effectively putting their money where their mouth is. While Pepsi, as a carbonated beverage, is not really relevant at all to whatever vague, bland message of unity their ad was allegedly attempting to promote.

Not only does Always use this ad to challenge the way we use microaggression to put girls and women down, it also, in contrast to the Pepsi protest ad, does not attempt to sell a product during the ad, nor does it claim that said product can somehow solve sexism. Rather Always uses its platform as an internationally successful feminine hygiene product to challenge our ideas of gender norms; appearing to all the world that the ad exists for its own sake, rather than to make the company money. While a discerning viewer can appreciate the ad’s value as a PR move, the effect it had for the brand’s image is undeniable.

Stand for something

The answer to the riddle of the Pepsi ad is simple; it’s problems stemmed from the fact that it stood for nothing. By touting vague themes of unity and togetherness, but not really saying anything about today’s political climate, the ad becomes a watered down, commercialised representation of a very real and potent struggle. On top of that, to suggest that Kendall Jenner, a beautiful white model, could solve everyone’s problems with a can of Pepsi minimises the struggles of countless protestors and activists who came before us.

By all means, brands should feel willing and able to use their platform and privilege to make a political statement. After all, western society still needs to normalise the idea of equality. But for god’s sake, don’t try to tell us that a can of soda can fix decades worth of racism, violence and political instability.

Protesting for profit? When ad campaign examples go moral – words Al Woods


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