Copyranter: The loathsome brands that exploit society’s ills

Mark Duffy has written the Copyranter blog for 10 years and is a freelancing copywriter with 20-plus years of experience. His hockey wrist shot is better than yours. Follow him on Twitter.

Brands are more “social” these days. You can like them. You can follow them. You can even poke them. Isn’t that swell?

To further remove dusty old marketing barriers, some brands let you, the consumer, co-create “content” with them (or, you know, let you work for free for them). They then think they have permission to be part of your “rituals,” part of bigger culture, part of the “conversation.”

One result: More and more, we’re getting brand “films” tackling big issues that have absolutely nothing to do with the brand. Often, they just slap their logo on at the end, as if to say: Brand X—official sponsor of Issue X (e.g., Ending Racism, Happy Marriages, World Peace, etc.).

Isn’t that altruistic? No. It isn’t. Because Brand X isn’t a nonprofit, and Brand X isn’t giving its profits to the cause. Brand X cares about one thing: selling more Brand X.

Last week, Pedigree released an American ad (by BBDO New York) in its “Feed The Good” global campaign. Watch it:

The concept of the spot is this: If we all had dogs and we all fed them Pedigree, then we would all just get along. Short version: Pedigree ends racism.

Bravo, Mars, Incorporated (parent company). With racial tensions in the country higher than they’ve been in years, you saw an opening and hopped on it like fox hounds. Seriously, you’ve got to be goddamn kidding me, talk about repugnant newsjacking. #FeelTheDisingenuosness.

Here’s another recent example: a Chinese spot for Rejoice shampoo from last October (by Leo Burnett Hong Kong). Warning: It’s a four-plus minute “film.”

If you didn’t watch the ad (as a rule, I don’t watch any video ad longer than 90 seconds, because if you choose not to edit your brand “story” down to a reasonable length, I choose to tell you to go to Hell), here’s the gist, ladies: The soft silky hair provided by Rejoice will stop any man from wanting to divorce you. Nothing sexist there at all, not at all.

This is how Terence Lam, P&G’s hair-care marketing manager for Greater China, defended the ad:

“We believe that no matter how complicated relationships can be, there’s always a way to smooth things up. As a brand devoted to smoothness and love, this is a position worth taking, having a strong point of view on this cultural phenomenon.”

Who knows? Maybe the Romans would have spared Jesus, the universal symbol of Love and Smooth Hair, had He used Rejoice.

Note that both spots are black and white (which, of course, equals gravitas), but at least Rejoice (a P&G product) didn’t stick its product/logo in.

There are, of course, many more recent examples of this Issue Advertising hooey, notably Dove’s long-running Empowerment Through Insecurity Femvertising campaign. There are even a few brands that actually do it right by at least tying their product to the message, like the “Like A Girl” campaign from Always.

Since these issue ads generally rack up huge view numbers, their ubiquity is only going to increase. But brands will only keep faux-caring about big cultural issues as long as sales are affected positively. Brands are not people. And brands are not your friends, no matter how friendly their Twitter feeds are. Brands are nothing but perceptions. And that’s the beginning and the end of the conversation.

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