Lionel Shriver

Does advertising matter?

Does advertising matter?
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‘Stop! Don’t fast-forward. I love this advert!’ How often do you say that? Considering that some commercial breaks run to five minutes, not often enough. How about, ‘Oh no, not again, I can’t stand this advert’? Mm… nightly?

According to recent research by the Pull Agency, a brand consultancy, promotion that strains to impress consumers with a company’s progressive imprimatur is off-putting. You always suspected it, but now it’s official: woke advertising backfires.

In a survey of 2,000 representative Britons, 68 per cent of respondents were either ‘uneasy’ or ‘unsure’ about brands supporting fashionable left-wing causes such as climate change, BLM, LGBTQ+, diversity, equality, and female body confidence. Fifteen per cent would actively avoid purchasing the products of companies that publicly endorse those causes via ‘woke-washing’. To go out on a limb here, I’d venture that even the 32 per cent of respondents who claimed to want brands to posture politically in their promotions would rather watch Cravendale Milk’s hilarious 2011 advert ‘Cats with Thumbs’ than the trendily humourless Nike advert ten years later, in which a black lesbian student spurns the classics as representing ‘the patriarchy’ to celebrate ‘women of colour’ who ‘fight for social justice’.

When asked what companies should do to be socially responsible, 58 per cent of respondents ticked: ‘Pay their taxes, treat people fairly, respect the environment and not use it as a PR opportunity.’ In other words, rather than lecture us to behave well, behave well yourself; peddle your product, not your unconvincing high-mindedness. Only 15 per cent wanted companies to take a public stand on progressive causes.

You’d think the advertising industry would have done this homework a while ago – although Pull Agency CEO Chris Bullick reports that when he first mooted the idea of the survey, fellow marketing executives were dark on it. Input ranged from ‘We’d advise strongly against it’ and ‘It could be seen as divisive’ to the perplexing, ‘It isn’t inclusive enough’. Mad Men’s successors seem taken with their new self-important roles as moral arbiters, cultural high priests and social engineers – whose remit is so much more exhilarating than the lowly business of selling cures for toenail fungus. Understandably, hard statistics demonstrating that they’ve grown incompetent at their real job was the last thing they wanted commissioned.

Because woke advertising un-sells products. The infamous 2019 Gillette advert critical of ‘toxic masculinity’ dropped sales by 9 per cent. By contrast, 2007’s artful but apolitical Cadbury advert of a gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins – which had nothing to do with chocolate, so I find the uptick baffling – raised sales by the same percentage.

The overkill of racial affirmative action in adverts is also misfiring. ‘The unthinking addition of ethnic, and in particular mixed-race couples,’ Bullick writes, ‘is seen by consumers as an “easy win” for lazy advertisers.’ His research verified that most people want to see a ‘realistic’ representation of the population as a whole, rather than the pointedly exaggerated casting of minorities so common to today’s commercials that the cliché has become comical.

Yet the application of a little common sense would have obviated the Pull Agency’s survey. Television adverts are annoying by their nature. They interrupt the programme we’re watching and badger us to buy something we don’t necessarily want. To counter our resentment, impatience and rational inclination to ignore the messaging altogether, canny marketers make ads as delightful as possible. Hectoring, moral superiority and the aggressive ramming of a narrow ideological agenda down your audience’s throat are anything but delightful. And like leftists everywhere, right-on ad execs mistakenly assume that everyone agrees with them. But all manner of political weirdos, even conservatives, watch TV. Why alienate potential customers when you don’t have to?

Worse, these preening promotions insult our intelligence. Adverts are selling stuff. Their aim is profit. To expect us to believe that the true purpose of this expensive communication is to make the world a better place is to take us for fools. Right, the manufacturer of Oreos doesn’t want us to eat more chocolate biscuits; it wants greater acceptance for biracial and lesbian couples. Forget that blather about flame-grilled meat; Burger King is primarily motivated to improve its customers’ mental health. The implied cynicism risks offending the very folks who embrace these causes.

Besides, there’s no pleasing such people. Reebok’s #BeMoreHuman campaign featuring the striking black actress Danai Gurira in a running bra (‘We have to make our shoulders strong enough for somebody else to stand on’) drew flak for promoting the ‘strong black woman trope’ – which, according to a logic that is anything but obvious, was dehumanising.

Politically goody-goody adverts miss the mark especially in tone. They’re earnest. For all partisan persuasions, earnestness is the ultimate buzzkill. (An acquaintance once characterised me as ‘earnest’, and I’ve never been more insulted.) Even Americans prefer irony to sincerity.

Earth to marketing execs: we like adverts that are funny. Again, I’ve no clue why the footage should influence our choice of tele-com provider, but Three’s 2014 ‘Sing It Kitty’, in which a lip-synching little girl on a tiny pink push-bike belts out ‘We built this city on ro-ock a-and ro-oll!’, was still a corker. Flogging dreary car insurance, Money Supermarket’s ‘Epic Dance-off’ from 2016 was hysterical: men in suit jackets and ties with big bums, tight shorts and high heels boogying with overweight builders. I’ll take that tongue-in-cheek ‘gender fluidity’ any day, and I watched those adverts more than once; they were usually more entertaining than the programme. Even ‘compare the meerkat dot-com’ is so dumb it works.

Does advertising matter? Maybe; like it or not, adverts are part of our culture. Unlike lastingly memorable campaigns such as ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing’ (Alka Seltzer 1972) or ‘Whassuuup?’ (Budweiser, 1999), these recent moralising commercials hold up a mirror to a preachy, party-pooping era. In future, they’re likely to be perceived pityingly as of a piece, unintentionally amusing specimens of a time when marketing became po-faced and self-destructive.

Written byLionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver is a columnist at The Spectator and author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, among other books.

Topics in this articleSociety