Alice asked the Cheshire Cat,
who was sitting in a tree,
“What road do I take?”
The cat asked,
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat,
“it really doesn’t matter, does it?”

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The challenges of advertising in times of social activism

Whiplash Team, May 2019

The challenges of advertising in times of social activism

The fiery reaction of Spanish consumers to El Corte Inglés’ Mother’s Day campaign, or that of Argentinian clients who forced Carrefour Argentina to withdraw their Children’s Day campaign in 2018, shows that brands and the advertising industry still have a lot of work to do in terms of stereotypes.

In recent years, the Internet and social networks have driven a gigantic step in society’s militancy in global causes such as gender equality, climate change, sustainability or fair trade, just to name a few. In this context of global social activism, advertising agencies as well as business and organizations marketing and communication managers, face the challenge and, at the same time, have the responsibility to update themselves and understand how their society evolves, discarding old stereotypes and paradigms that might have been right at another time in history, but today may be offensive.

A good example is the El Corte Inglés campaign for Mother’s Day developed by the company’s Creativity and Marketing department. The campaign included a TV spot premiered on May 1 in two versions, 30 seconds and 45 seconds and a poster showing a woman accompanied by the text “97% dedication, 3% selfishness, 0% complaints, 100% mother “. The message, that some years ago would have gone unnoticed by most people, in today’s Spain has aroused many phobias and very few philias. So much so, that the Generalitat Valenciana has opened an investigation to the company on the grounds that the campaign can “promote the stereotype of a mother that subdues women to fulfill their role as good mothers based on dedication, above all other identities”. Reactions on Twitter have been quick, and the campaign has received all kinds of adjectives, such as old-fashioned, macho, patriarchal and anachronistic, and the brand has been accused of promoting the stereotype of a submissive mother.

Representatives of the company point out that the campaign’s intention was “to pay homage to mothers and highlight their key role in society”, which evidences that nobody gave a thought at the different interpretations that the campaign’s message could have in a society so sensitized towards gender equality as the Spanish. In the release statement of the campaign, El Corte Inglés explained that it referred to “the mother who works at home taking care of her family; the one that goes out to work every day; the one that tries to make time for her when the children have fallen asleep; the one that goes running or has dinner with friends; and the one that makes true juggling to pick up children from school, even if she has professional commitments. All are “100% mothers”, but they are also women of today, who contribute a lot to society with their effort and work at home, “reports Europa Press.

But El Corte Inglés is not the only brand whose advertising has unwittingly aroused critics. Carrefour launched a campaign for Children’s Day in Argentina in August 2018. The promotional poster showed a child in a racing car and a girl with a toy kitchen, while the slogan read: “With ‘C’ of Champion”, he; on a blue background, and “With ‘C’ of Cook”, she; on pink background. The French supermarkets chain received a barrage of criticism via social networks, including those of organizations such as the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights; Casa del Encuentro, an association that works against violence against women; UN Women, the United Nations agency for gender equality and the empowerment of women and the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism. In the face of sexism accusations, the company was forced to apologize publicly and withdraw the campaign.

Hershey’s Mexico also messed up when, in August 2018, it launched on Instagram the #HacerElBienSabeBien (“Doing good, tastes good”) campaign, as part of the brand’s anniversary celebrations. The campaign showed Mexican influencers (mostly white) who gave chocolates or food to people of limited resources (mostly non-whites) and, of course, immortalized the moment with a photograph to share it in their networks. Criticism, dismissing the campaign as racist and classist, made the brand to apologize and withdraw it. The campaign was nominated as the most racist in the Mexican advertising anti-awards.

Opposite to these ads are, for example, Nike’s controversial campaign with Colin Kaepernick, or Gillette’s against “toxic machismo”, that also provoked irritation in a part of society and of the brands’ consumers. In both cases the messages were intentional and clearly spoke of these companies’ position on controversial issues such as racial or sexual discrimination. Both, Nike and Gillette, remained firm despite the threats of boycott by a segment of their users, demonstrating that their position was not due to temporary circumstances and showing that what separates companies that do things by conviction of those who are forced due to circumstances, it is that the former will remain firm despite the financial costs of their decision.

In any case, for companies, agencies and consumers, it is the time of learnong. The advertising industry and the marketing and communication departments, as strategists of the brand’s storytelling and the dialogue established between it and the consumer, must revise their prevailing stereotypes, and permanently update their understanding of their users’ demands. All this, of course, embracing local markets particularities and tuning up with their targeted society, to correctly transfer the purpose and commitment of the brand through all channels and media.

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