What role can advertising play when the world is falling apart? Shortly after Donald Trump’s election – and in the midst of judging for the Epica awards – Nils Adriaans of Dutch magazine Adformatie talked to three advertising journalists, an advertising strategist and an advertising thinker to find out. The conversation focused on emerging forms of creativity and cultural commentary that are taking brands into uncharted territories.
‘No, we didn’t see Brexit coming’, says Eliza Williams, associate editor of Creative Review. ‘I don’t think anyone can predict what the consequences will be.’
David Griner, digital managing editor of Adweek in New York, reacts: ‘The same thing is true for us. Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning. That means people lied in the polls; even some of my friends probably did. Which doesn’t mean Trump didn’t have a damned good campaign.’
Santiago Campillo-Lundbeck, marketing editor at Horizont (Germany): ‘It really is difficult to predict where things will go. We live in a different age, but we’ve seen examples of things ending badly. We know all about that in Germany.’
Brands are responding more explicitly to what is happening in current events and culture. For instance the ‘engaged’ work Anomaly made for Johnnie Walker, like ‘Ode to Lesvos’ (in which the inhabitants of an island are literally flooded with refugees) and ‘This Land’, a film broadcast shortly before the elections, with ‘Keep Walking America’ as a grand finale. Is this the direction the business should be heading in?
Williams: ‘What I will say, is this: we might be commercialising sentimentality here. But on the other hand: it was made beautifully, and with respect. And it’s a part of a Johnnie Walker series about inspiration, human progress and endurance. But still I wonder: why is a whisky brand telling us this stuff, and not a journalist or a politician?’
Amanda Fève, chief strategy officer and partner Anomaly (an American): ‘I can see that, because it’s unconventional. But I’m very grateful towards the client for letting us make this. It fits seamlessly into the proposition of Johnnie Walker. Do I think it’s emotionally manipulative? In fiction people go a lot further. We decided to tell a true story, and to allow the story to speak for itself. It takes courage for a brand to make that decision. There is a lot of good in the world, why wouldn’t we show that? With the message: whoever you are, you can make a difference.’
Williams: ‘That’s true, but the end...It feels a bit like: This show was brought to you by. It reminds me of that Christmas ad by supermarket chain Sainsbury in 2014, with the football match between German and British soldiers during the First World War. The message was correct; it really happened that way and Sainsbury has always had a connection with The Royal British Legion, the charity for war veterans. And still it felt like something was wrong: are you allowed, as a commercial brand, to appropriate something as un-commercial as that?...Though it is telling how different people reacted to that ad; from outside of the ad business as well. Apparently public opinion is shifting in that regard.’
What’s wrong with a brand trying to do good?
De Rita: ‘There is nothing wrong with this “documentary”, except for the fact it’s an ad...A brand doesn’t really want my attention, it wants my attention in order to sell me something. A brand like Nike should invest in basketball courts and educating coaches to really take a step forward. It’s all well and good to encourage empathy, that’s the most important condition when you’re trying to communicate a message. But brands will have to change medium and means to truly achieve something socially.’
Campillo-Lundbeck: I don’t agree. It’s completely authentic for a brand to try to sell something: that’s why it’s a brand. But it’s about perspective. When Johnnie Walker makes a documentary about the refugee crisis out of nothing, then that’s strange, because a whisky brand doesn’t have moral authority in that field. But if it’s made out of the perspective of inspiration, about the people there, then that’s believable content. I don’t think a lot of people will be against that.’
De Rita: ‘It’s not about morality, it’s about credibility. Whisky and refugees, do you see a connection?’
Williams: ‘As a suspicious watcher I fear for a post-truth-like effect in cases like this. It was made respectfully and it totally chimes with my beliefs, but how do I know if the message is pure?’
Griner: ‘There is no right answer to the question about what we’re allowed to do. Because whenever it’s unclear a brand is behind what’s being communicated, you’ll get slaughtered. I feel sorry for brands when that happens.’
Fève: ‘People are quick to judge, which makes it extra difficult. To make the story richer, we’ve made films about individual inhabitants of Lesbos as well. But in a lot of cases, the judgement is there already.’
HOLDING BRANDS RESPONSIBLE
De Rita: ‘Have you read the book A Brief History of the Future: A Brave and Controversial Look at the Twenty-First Century? It’s by Jacques Attali, former advisor of French presidents Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy. He proposes creating a second UN parliament, with brands like Microsoft and Facebook. Because those brands have the money to really make a difference…In a certain way, this is already happening: you don’t stand a chance in elections if you don’t have a lot of money to campaign.’
Williams: ‘It’s an interesting thought, but health care and public transport in England haven’t really improved since the emergence of privatization. It can actually be quite destructive.’
Campillo-Lundbeck: ‘It’s about trust; which isn’t there. When Adidas says they are going to turn plastic waste into sneakers, and it turns out they’re only making 3000 pairs, then you’re exposed. Or take Starbucks. They’re doing everything right when it comes to sustainability, but they’re hardly paying any taxes. It makes you realise: brands aren’t trying to change anything, they just piggyback trends to become more popular and make more money.’
De Rita: ‘The idea is that we really hold brands responsible. Bill Gates has been fighting malaria for years, so give Microsoft that task. Take brands away from the small world of sales and marketing. They can do so much better than that! They have the means to do something while governments are broke.’
Griner: ‘Even though creative marketeers often have really good intentions and despite the similarities between banks and utility companies – talking about villains. But we shouldn’t drift away from reality: we’re all working in an industry primarily concerned with making money.’
Fève: ‘It’s important to be honest. But one thing doesn’t exclude the other: Unilever is working hard to make planet Earth cleaner. And yes, eventually that will be good for Unilever.’
De Rita: ‘There is a middle road to be socially responsible as well as profitable. I think Philips is a great example. They make medical machines costing millions, which is way too much for public hospitals. I’ve heard they’re looking for alternatives now, like lease constructions or building Philips hospitals, where they train doctors to use those machines. Again, it’s about having vision. The alternative is that we keep looking away from the future.’
Philips is a good example, but what could a brand like Coca-Cola do? You can hardly expect them to truly make humanity happy.
De Rita: ‘The common interest and the happiness of all should be our primary concern at all times. Only then do you look at your own interest, the smaller happiness. Not the other way around. That sounds logical, but in the world of brands the mantra is: look at your own interests first. But brands live in the real world, not in a seemingly perfect parallel universe. At least, not anymore.’
Campillo-Lundbeck: ‘If it’s authentic for a brand to do good, then I’m all for it. But Benetton’s anti-racist shock marketing was really an attempt to be visible, and not a goal in itself. I’m sceptic about Phillips hospitals as well: are we allowed to put a machine made by General Electric there, if it’s in the interest of medical science or the patient?’
Griner: ‘I worked for an agency for ten years: if it wasn’t profitable, brand managers of the finance department weren’t allowed to spend a penny on ‘good’ investments. And then they are blamed for the so called cold and business-like mentality of the brand.’
But is it all the fault of businesses? Or are consumers responsible as well? They haven’t turned their backs on Volkswagen en masse after the diesel scandal.
Campillo-Lundbeck: ‘The American government punished Volkswagen harshly. But the consumer didn’t, no.’
Griner: ‘There’s never a lot of controversy in America when it doesn’t affect the consumer directly. Two exploding smartphones are more damaging than the revelation that millions of cars are more polluting than buyers were told.’
Campillo-Lundbeck: ‘The brand loses a part of the value they managed to build. Volkswagen would show off those BlueMotion labels they had, but they’ll have to put that strategy away for now. And in the growing market of sustainable, electric vehicles that’s not a good thing.’
NO MORE BIG IDEAS?
Finally: it seems that in order to stand out, you need so much emotional impact that it takes away from the idea.
Griner: ‘What stands out for me is that little ideas can grow to become massive movements. Like #OptOutside by outdoor retailer REI as a reaction to Black Friday. The only thing they did was give their employees the day off, but they won multiple Grand Prix in Cannes with it. There was a marketing communications idea behind it, by the agency Venables Bell & Partners from San Francisco, but still…’
Fève: ‘Trump’s idea was really simple as well: a baseball cap with the text "Make America great again". But it was a “big idea”. I agree that ideas often need time to grow strong – even really good ideas. But often they don’t get that time. There needs to be a direct impact. The attention is very fleeting. Not only with consumers, but with a lot of marketeers too, when they can’t stay in the same place for very long. Then you can start again. We chase our tails a lot!’
Williams: ‘The Next Rembrandt' is an example of huge impact with a central communications idea. What’s the message there? I thought it was a brilliant PR stunt, asking a very modern question: how does art relate to technology? News floors can really work with that thought. But again, not many people know that ING was behind it; let alone that its advertising creatives came up with it.’
Griner: ‘For me 'The Next Rembrandt' is proof that data isn’t boring. Technology is creativity. For me, that was the big idea.’
Campillo-Lundbeck: ‘It’s true that the "Big Idea" doesn’t need to be communications in a direct sense. The idea could also be becoming part of popular culture. R/GA did that very well with Beats by Dre: they infiltrated the 2012 London Olympics. Even Michael Phelps, the king of the Olympics, wore a pair of Beats headphones when he was preparing for his matches. That was literally gold.’
Fève: ‘I agree. Let the product “play” a central role and create culturally relevant content around it. That’s how we work with our clients, and it starts with the understanding that compelling product demonstrations can take multiple shapes, including but not limited to advertising.’
De Rita: ‘The reality is that we can’t really afford to let big ideas fly anymore. Only a few parties can do that – if they wanted to. The good news of this development is that it’s wise to try out multiple, smaller ideas and to just wait and see what happens. I’ve already witnessed that big brands are looking into offering micro-budgets to multiple micro-agencies. The market has become unpredictable…. Ideas that really start to fly out of nothing, whether it’s The Ice Bucket Challenge or Trump’s victory, it’s all proof that the unexpected is coming back to our business. Despite all of the data and research. That’s the positive thing about all of this: more is possible creatively than ever before, and that’s exciting!’