It’s still only January but already we’re on our third advert-related outrage of the year. To the Army’s ‘Snowflakes’ poster campaign and HSBC’s bold assertion that Britain is not an island, we can now add Gillette’s ‘the best a man can be’. We’ve come a long way since the greatest affront to British audiences was KFC’s clip of call-centre workers singing with their mouths full, which garnered over 1,500 complaints in 2005.
But is this a surprise? Not really. The culture wars have bubbled to the surface of society in the last decade in a flurry of placards, dyed hair and high-vis vests. No longer the preserve of internet chat rooms and gender studies departments; now outrage is mainstream. The Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter, Brexit and the Trump election campaign, whether the heralds of change or the change itself, have upended the landscape.
If you’ve been sucked into the maelstrom of Twitter, you’ll know that the culture wars are hell. No one is spared; political parties, religions, institutions, celebrities, members of the public, multinational companies and small Christian bakeries alike risk the wrath of the mob. It’s a societal crisis driving people apart. But this culture war isn't bad news for everyone. To some, it provides an excellent opportunity.
The advertising industry has taken this further than most. There are companies that take risks to get attention. BrewDog, for example, played that game for a long time, sending rude letters to industry standards boards and trying to open a bar straddling the US/Mexican border to flout immigration laws.
Pepsi were also among the first to attempt to capitalise on the culture wars, with a protest advert featuring the model Kendall Jenner. The firm was accused of demeaning protests in a bid to use them for profit. As a result of the backlash, it wasn't long before it was pulled from the air less than 24 hours after its release. Even now, this advert is cited as a blunder. But surveys of Pepsi’s public image tell a different story: within a few weeks, a survey suggested 44 per cent of the US public – Pepsi drinkers or not – said they saw the drinks brand in a more positive light than before.
Nike also found itself on the receiving end of criticism after the firm stumbled clumsily into the Black Lives Matter protests with its Colin Kaepernick campaign, featuring the NFL quarterback who kneeled for the national anthem. The reaction, predictably, was every bit as big as Nike would have wanted. The internet was filled with declarations from people that they would never wear Nike again, and there were many videos of people burning Nike products. Kaepernick’s symbol as a figurehead for the BLM movement did not go down well with the predominantly white, working class, Trump-voting NFL fanbase. They made their feelings known. Naturally, Nike’s sales jumped 31 per cent.
The campaign’s slogan, ‘Stand for something, even if it means risking everything,’ was prescient for Kaepernick’s story. But it could also serve as the mantra for this new, bold advertising strategy. More and more of these adverts are popping up. They are targeted and designed to take sides; by offending and isolating others, they appeal directly to the demographics they want to corner.
‘It’s definitely happening – ads are becoming more divisive,’ says Tim Paton of photography agency Magnum Photos. ‘It’s so hard to be noticed in advertising today. There is so much noise that brands and agencies feel they need to take a more radical approach. As society becomes more divided, and social media profiling becomes more sophisticated, it’s easier to direct campaigns at specific groups of people.’
Gillette’s advert wasn’t aimed at selling to men – not the chest-thumping Piers Morgans of the world, anyway. Instead, its target was demographics we now know received it well; progressive men and women. These are people who often do consider the concept of ’toxic masculinity’ a problem. The reaction the advert prompted from the likes of Morgan, who claimed Gillette had ‘cut their own throat’ and harangued them for ‘man-hating’ on Good Morning Britain and in his Daily Mail column, will have only strengthened their beliefs. It is a clear signal that Gillette is on their side.
The British Army’s advert upset ‘snowflakes’ and many of the young people it purported to target. But it wasn’t aimed at recruiting those who’d never join or older folk that wouldn't be able to sign up whether they wanted to or not. It was aimed at those who laughed at the hysteria it caused.
The HSBC ad, meanwhile, was designed to wind up Brexiteers. And why shouldn’t it? Remainers make up 48 per cent of the population. The market is saturated with banking options but one that very clearly nails its colours to the mast on such a divisive issue will win a lot of goodwill from those who agree with it.
By taking sides, these companies are using a divide and conquer strategy. It’s cynical, and not everyone is on board with it. For all Gillette may like revelling in their newfound status as progressive icons – or HSBC basking in the glow of ‘citizens of nowhere’ – they are doing little to fix the issues they claim to care so much about.
Is it right to inflame social and cultural divides to flog products?Whatever the answer, companies – and advertisers – don't care much. Moral or not, the tactic is clearly effective. After all, if it wasn't it wouldn’t be so prevalent. So where will it all lead? If it’s anything like the rest of the world, expect the adverts popping up on our screens to get more and more divisive.