Political Correctness and Advertising
Published B&T – May 2016
It’s never my fault.
“Advertising Has the Power to Make Children Fat and This Needs to Stop”.
A quote from a researcher at the University of Liverpool in the UK. And here I was naively thinking that childhood obesity was due to poor diet and poor parenting. But obviously not. Leave your child watching afternoon TV, turn you back for 20 minutes and oops, they have put on 5 kilos.
Obesity in children is not a subject to make light of or joke about. But to find a solution, like any problem, the real cause must be identified and it sure as hell is not advertising.
There is nothing wrong with snack food, or junk food if you like, in moderation. It is the role of the parents or guardians to both educate and discipline their children. No matter the form of the advertising, its reason for existence (tempted to say “raison d’etre”, we need another buzz word or phrase and it’s time for it to make a comeback), is to make this food as competitively appealing as possible. What do the PC expect “The All New Cadbury Flake. Looks and Tastes Like Shit”?
But advertising is a convenient scapegoat because the bleeding hearts must have someone, besides “the victim”, to blame.
In my 30 plus years in this business I have seen advertising blamed for just about every blight on society. And each time I think “If only advertising was so powerful and influential.”
Advertising doesn’t start trends, it follows them.
Advertising doesn’t start trends. Our role is to be aware of emerging trends and latch onto those which can be commercially leveraged. Sorry to say, but advertising is lousy at changing behaviour. It can persuade people to swap or try a new brand and attitudinal shifts, but that is at a pretty micro level.
We can help propagate behavioral changes, but advertising doesn’t start them from scratch. In fact, most serious behavioral changes are predicated by legislation. Huh? Drink driving and RBT. Thirty years ago, people at a party would ask someone who was shitfaced, ‘Are you ok?’. ‘Just help me to my car and I’ll be right to drive’ and someone would. When Random Breath Testing was introduced there were initial howls of protest and outrage, “It’s an infringement on my civil liberties” and other more colourful expressions.
But how things change. If Blind Freddy stumbles around a party today, mistaking a closet for the toilet and stepping on the cat, or in the case of a well know footballer, getting to know the family dog more intimately and then announces he is driving home there is a mad scramble to take his car keys away. It is sociably unacceptable. The same for littering – try driving down a city street and start tossing rubbish out the window and you will be sure to get a reaction. As with smoking. But these were not only acceptable habits not that long ago, they were common place and the social norm.
Attitudes have shifted enormously in a relatively short period of time. But it was the legislation, followed by advertising, that really drove the change.
Advertising. A cornerstone of democracy and freedom of speech.
Sound dramatic? The Institute of Public Affairs has just conducted their inaugural Free Speech on Campus Audit across Australia’s 42 universities. Universities have, since they began, been places of open debate, liberated thinking and the exploration of ideas. When I was at university, protest marches were a weekly occurrence. “What do we want?” “The right to (just about anything)”. “When do we want it?” “NOW”.
Of these 42 universities, 33 (nearly 80%) had policies which substantially limited freedom of speech or had acted censoriously. Bloody hell, my Alma Mater, the University of Queensland has made it a crime to be “sarcastic”.
We are now seeing PC spreading through the advertising industry. One of the very few industries that almost matched universities for the diversity of ideas and thinking. I have had the privilege of working in this industry for over 30 years and the whilst we cop a lot of criticism, very few industries or professions have so many talented and creative people, from an incredible diversity of backgrounds, working together.
The industry has always been socially and intellectually progressive. But it has done so without becoming involved in politics - “let the consumer decide” has been the mantra.
We have bodies such as the Advertising Standards Bureau and CAD to rule on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of advertising. Do we want to see a well thought out code of conduct overridden by a rabid social media lynch mob?
Freedom of the media (and by extension, freedom of speech) was dependent upon advertising. And how ever the media landscape does evolve, advertising will play a pivotal role. Facebook, Google, Snapchat etc. all owe their multi-billion-dollar worth to the current and future perceived revenue from advertising, in one form or another.
Stick to advertising, not sociology
A recent KFC Twitter ad “something hot and spicy” was withdrawn within an hour. The howls of outrage came not only from the outside, but from within the industry. One lady posted “It has put woman’s rights back 50 years in this country”.
I am not saying it was a brilliant piece of work, but one would have thought it was promoting the rise of a new Nazi Party by the level of outrage. And not finding it offensive does not mean someone is not concerned about domestic violence, or any other pressing social issue. Censorship and genuine impingement on freedom of speech do nothing for such issues.
Vested interest minorities have always been well organised, which allows them to appear much larger and more influential than they really are. Issues which bring a shrug of the shoulders from the average punter are pursued with a fanatical zeal by small groups. Prior to social media, if a marketing manager received 100 letters of complaint about a particular ad, it was generally enough to have them take it off air. Lobbying was once mainly the province of slick professional companies, with the aim of influencing policy on behalf of paid clients. (From oil companies to the Catholic Church). Social media, particularly Twitter, has allowed any group of zealots to appear much larger and exert more influence than their unelected (and population percentage) status justifies – amplification, as they say in the world of social media.
And it is not just the ads, but the programmes and publications in which they appear, receive the censorship attack.
If a person puts their mind to it, they can find offence in just about anything. When doing the advertising for the United Nation International Year of the Family, a large film distributor offered to run the TV ad we created just prior to the opening scene of a new movie. The offer was declined as the movie deemed up there with “Debbie Does Dallas” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, by the senior federal public servants. A dreadful movie which gave off all the wrong messages about family. It encouraged sexism, homophobia and racial stereotyping.
The movie in question? The Lion King. Yep. Lionesses subservient to the lions (sexism), the “evil” lion spoke with a hint of a lisp. (Homophobia). Whoopi Goldberg was the voice of the lead hyena. (Racial stereotyping). God only knows what damage this movie has done to millions of impressionable young minds all around the world?
This occurred in 1994. Political correctness is not a recent phenomenon.
A golden rule has always been, unless you are acting for a political party, stay clear of politics. Yet I have seen a distinct drift to the left and political correctness within the advertising industry over the past 30 years.
Today it seems that any ad which dares to step outside of the vanilla draws fire from vested interest minorities. Disturbingly, much of the PC criticism is coming from within the industry. Your subjective professional judgement is always welcome, but shut the hell up about issues of political correctness.
Advertisers (and advertising people) need to find out more about what the almost silent majority think, rather than the vocal social media minority. No wonder we have campaigns like “It’s a Mitsy”. Compare it to this TVC
Great ideas push the envelope and step outside of the norm. But if a client is going to be swayed by concerted social media campaigns and conflict and criticism from within their organistaion (have to fight both internally and externally) then they won’t ever be caught up in any type of controversy, nor will they ever benefit from big ideas for the brands and products for which they are responsible. Great ideas provoke great debate and ultimately lead to great results. And isn’t that what advertising is supposed to help achieve?
Vanilla – works for ice cream and brûlée, but not for advertising