The MPA Big Debates notoriously provide a space for introspection and contemplation in no small measures. A place where industry peers come together to hash out their opinions on prevalent themes of the minute; spokespersons from creative, PR, branding, publication, social and production come together to gain insight from one another surrounding key debates like morality in advertising, gender, representation and the parameters of data collection.
This time around, we gathered to talk about whether creativity needs a conscience, in light of the recent rise of brands discussing social issues in their advertising campaigns.
Kicking off the debate, MPA Chairman Christian James suggested that, ‘There’s a stigma that advertising is about finding a way to sell people stuff they don’t need. I’ve always thought that it’s really about giving people information – giving them a choice.’
But is do-goodery just a smokescreen used to sell products that lack a story of their own? It’s a well-established fact that the way to get to someone is through their heart and not their head, so it makes sense from a performance perspective to leverage key areas of interest. Stuart Hilton from ZEAL creative said that, ‘No. I don’t think that creativity should need a conscience in order to cut through. It’s concerning to see issues as a bandwagon with which to pitch badly crafted ideas. ’
He also suggested that from a branding perspective, it made sense to discuss key ideas – the same ideas that shouldn’t underpin creativity. This moves the discussion onto the idea of brands associating themselves with a cause, how this works best in terms of feasibility and curating a consistent brand message whilst remaining sincere.
Stuart went on to suggest that, ‘a good example of a brand staying in their lane and being what they’re actually about is the 2015 Nivea ad’ which discussed the importance of UV protection in children.
Stuart suggested that by discussing issues that are naturally relevant to their brand, Nivea retained the sincerity that Gillette lacked in their recent ad discussing toxic masculinity.
Gillette was the buzzword of the evening and there were certainly mixed opinions about the ad and the motif behind it. With regards to the ad, Richard Pearson from BJL suggested that, ‘The fundamental thing that they’re doing is exactly what we should be talking about. The way they’ve gone about it is problematic.’ He laments that the main issue is transparency – it’s an issue that Gillette are trying to speak on gender issues when they continue to charge more for ‘women’s razors’ which differ from ‘men’s razors’ only in that they are pink.
On the topic of gender and masculinity Richard went on to reiterate the importance of brands having a voice naturally. He praised PureGym for discussing the issue of unhealthy male body image, which is far more progressive than turning typically masculine zones feminine by turning them pink and suggesting that they’re now for women. Furthermore, he concedes that ‘Women don’t want pink things, they just want brands to be less gender orientated. Let’s move brands on from stereotypes in a socially conscious way.’
Nick Entwistle from the Bank of Creativity found the Gillette advert particularly problematic because it was ‘at the expense of others’.
Stating that ‘I believe that creativity should have a conscience, but calling out others just causes rifts. Antagonising others for publicity [like we’ve seen on social media when brands goad personalities like Piers Morgan into commenting on them] for publicity, is wrong. Pushing your agenda onto people and not being respectful of their right to an opinion is wrong’
He believed that rather than pulling stunts that push brands into the public eye, brands should consider pursuing causes that have a solid, measurable end goal. ‘Don’t just talk the talk. Why not partner up with charities and actually do something so you have an end goal. Awareness and exposure is great, but I don’t just sat something for the sake of saying it – I mean it.
Jo Whiteley weighed in by suggesting that the answer to the question is absolutely yes. ‘Creativity should have a conscience. With depth behind a brand comes a rich vein of creativity. I joined the industry because I love a good story. It’s exciting to find a way to tell a compelling story that drives people to believe in a brand.
‘We do have to be more careful these days – there really does have to be depth. This means that the story has to be authentic and there has to be truth behind it. It’s an issue when brands take the moral high ground if there’s so substance behind it. So, look internally at the production line and the product you’re putting out there to ensure you’re being consistent with your message.’
Candidly, she adds that, ‘A good story doesn’t have to come from an ethical standpoint. If it’s a story, I’ll tell it whether it’s ethical or not. However, because people’s purchasing patterns are changing, I think brands should look at thinking consciously in order to motivate people to buy.’
The final thoughts are that corporate responsibility in the past has been a lot about ticking boxes and having something to put in annual reviews. Now that strategic PR is more contentious, we are beginning to see brands making decisions from the heart that actually effect the business. The best brands always knew that the best way to get into the public consciousness was to tap into and push forward a social issue, but execution eats strategy for breakfast and that comes from meaning what you’re saying and letting your morality shine through in every aspect of your business.
We’ve reached a time wherein the consumer is in a position to tell the company what to do. The power of social media gives us the freedom to make brands change, and so brands now exist as communities made up of the consumer and the company.