Some advertisers must hanker for the old days. It must've been much easier to market a product when you could just slap a picture of a beautiful woman alongside it, layer a suggestive slogan on top and fire it off to the client in time for a celebratory Scotch at 5pm. What did it matter if the product was likely to kill its customers? Or if the idea of the ad was to guilt consumers into buying something by making them feel bad about themselves? As long as the sales rolled in, everything was hunky-dory.
Nowadays, consumers are more discerning – or, according to the PC-gone-mad brigade, sensitive. Adverts that objectify, denigrate or shame people are decidedly out of fashion, leaving a vacuum that, if recent efforts are anything to go by, advertisers are struggling to fill.
Lapses in judgment are no longer just contenders for "worst ad of the year" awards, they can now turn into global PR nightmares, as Dove found out last year when it published an ad on Facebook that featured a black woman taking off her brown T-shirt to reveal a white woman, who then took off her beige T-shirt to reveal a Middle Eastern woman. How anyone could think an ad like that was a good idea, I'll never know, but thousands of social media users quickly brought Dove up to speed.
A similar social media tidal wave occurred in January, when it emerged that cosmetic brand Hard Candy had applied to trademark the iconic #metoo, injecting corporate interests into a grassroots movement led by sexual violence survivors. Hard Candy quickly back-pedalled, offering to donate profits from any #metoo-branded products to survivors of sexual violence, but it's hard to imagine a move more tone-deaf. What were they thinking?
Or perhaps the more salient question is who was doing the thinking?
In an era when people are increasingly becoming more "woke"; when millennials are beginning to drive the conversation more and more, brands are being forced to react to a cohort of consumers that are more concerned about ethics than having the hottest new accessory. Put simply, we like cool stuff, but we want to be able to feel good about buying it.
It's no longer acceptable to simply throw a bit of money at a charity and consider corporate responsibility taken care of. Or to make an ad about diverse people without consulting with said people first. It's also a bad call to do a 180-degree turn without self-awareness, as Kellogg's attempted with its #JustOwnIt campaign, telling women to just "own" their bodies, when it had spent decades encouraging women to eat Special K to slim down.
Sports Illustrated fell into a similar trap recently, when it published its iconic swimsuit edition with a trying-to-be-woke twist. The models were photographed with various words drawn on their bodies, which is actually a device I used myself when I created #MyBodyMyTerms. The difference, however, is that Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition has always used women's bodies to sell magazines. It seems almost as if the editorial staff have realised that the swimsuit edition is becoming an increasingly problematic concept in our modern era and have tried to ram some progressiveness on to an outdated idea. It rings false.
But at least it's something, right? At least some brands are making an attempt to leave their more cringe-worthy moments behind and move forward into a more progressive future? Yes and no. While efforts to modernise brands' approaches to advertising should be celebrated, it's time that advertisers and marketers took a long, hard look at themselves, acknowledged the harm they have caused in perpetuating stereotypes, pursuing a thin, white ideal, objectifying women and attempting to cash in on movements that have had nothing to do with them.
And it's time that they committed to diversity in their own backyards. Part of the problem is likely that decision makers are still predominantly white and male. Which, before my social media mentions fill with splutters, is not to say that white men are the problem, rather that having too many people from similar backgrounds and world views tends to create blind spots and groupthink.
Headline-grabbing scandals have been plaguing the advertising industry for a while now, throwing issues like diversity (or the lack thereof) in advertising companies into the spotlight well before the Weinstein debacle pushed sexism and misogyny to the top of the agenda. Ex-Saatchi and Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts famously resigned from his post in 2016 after making controversial comments about diversity.
In the interview in which he made his comments, Roberts revealed that he didn't spend any time on gender issues at his agencies, instead pointing the finger at the financial sector, where, he said, there were problems "left, right and centre". When industry leaders are either unwilling or unable to see the problems that non-diverse workforces create, pointing the finger elsewhere rather than taking an honest look in the mirror, the sector is doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. One can only hope that things have changed since Roberts left.
Until recently, the pace of change has been frustratingly slow. In context, it wasn't that long ago that Benson and Hedges sponsored the New Zealand Open, and even now, alcohol brands sponsor various sporting competitions and teams. Kiwi brand I Love Ugly hit global headlines for all the wrong reasons in late 2015 when it produced an ad campaign featuring men's bejewelled hands touching the naked, headless bodies of women. A Kiwi real estate agent recently decided to use nearly naked women to advertise his services because he thought "oh yeah that's cool".
We clearly still have a way to go, but in this new, time's up environment, old dogs need to learn new tricks, and quickly. Those who don't, deserve whatever outrage comes their way.