Professor Byron Sharp says it’s time for marketing to stand up and be confident. We have much to be proud of.
Recently campaigns that feature a “save the world” angle have done extraordinarily well in the Cannes Lions creativity awards. Any submission for a charity seems to enjoy a special inside track to winning an award. As do campaigns that link brands to social causes (brand purpose).
As Rory Sutherland, former vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, cheekily observed:
“there’s an aspect to Cannes that slightly irritates me, it’s a little bit of a liberal, worthy wankfest at times. I’d kind of like to see a nice campaign for the National Rifle Association once every two years as there’s a little bit of that self congratulatory ‘mmm, yes, we’re saving the world’ stuff which, frankly, sticks in the throat a little bit.”
“What’s to worry about?” you ask, “isn’t it good that these worthy causes have become so popular with marketers?” But there is plenty to be worried about, let me explain…
First, there is the obvious point that it means that the Lions awards aren’t fair, they aren’t truly awards for creative excellence when they muddle in political correctness. A submission for the NRA would have to be truly outstanding to win an award, indeed perhaps it could never win no matter how good it was? So the festival organisers have allowed their awards to be corrupted – they need to fix this or the awards will lose their value.
More importantly though this trend says something is rotten in the world of advertising and marketing. There is an awful cringe – many people seem to hate the fact that they work in marketing, especially that they promote brands that are popular with billions of consumers and therefore sold by big businesses. This is an awful situation. That we have people prostituting themselves working to market brands when they think commerce is grubby, that big business is immoral, and that the world would be better off without the brands they promote. This cultural cringe is seen in the numbers of marketers who, once they have accumulated a small fortune, leave their agency or company to go work for a charity (or if they have accumulated a large fortune they set themselves up as philanthropists to somehow atone for their sins (or buy their way into heaven?)). If this is the example we set how will we attract ethical young people into our profession?
The loathing of big business over small is odd because it’s big businesses with big brands that are far more likely to be environmentally responsible, non-discriminatory employers. They have a reputation to keep, unlike many small businesses who are more worried about whether they will be still be in business next year.
Brands should be good corporate citizens, but the idea of turning them into saints is nuts. It’s also unimaginative. These are the sort of marketing campaigns that high school students come up with for their term papers. Showing the brand saving the world is sweet, but naive, and hardly original. An adult, Mark Ritson, wrote recently: “Patently, the whole concept of brand purpose is moronic. I do not want Starbucks telling me about race relations and world peace – I want it to serve me a decent coffee in pleasant locations. I care about race equality, deeply, but I do not trust a giant corporation with an extremely spotty reputation for paying its taxes telling me what to think.”
There is also a deep ethical issue of whether it is right to take share-holders money and spend it on your favourite cause. This is other people’s money (the pension savings of millions of people) and these individuals each have their own charitable causes.
The irony of marketing’s brand purpose fashion is that anyone familiar with statistics on human development knows that we are living in extraordinary times. Violence, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. The world has become a drastically better place, and is continuing to get better still – and this is largely due to trade and the value it generates, which allows for investment in scientific discovery, which in turn further accelerates the gains brought about by trade. It was the trading revolution that started 10,000 years ago that brought about the specialisation that would in turn create the scientific revolution. Commerce and science together are changing the world improving lifting millions out of poverty, at a rate never seen before in the entire history of humanity. In the past century extreme poverty (which for most of history was the norm) has dropped to less than 10% of the world population, and that statistic is in free-fall.
Life expectancy has been improving dramatically throughout the world, largely as infant mortality is being eliminated. Vaccination rates throughout the developing world are typically around 90%, higher even than some wealthy, but deluded, suburbs in California. Violence is declining at a similarly dramatic rate, education levels rising, and the moral progress that started during ‘the Enlightenment’ now means that the rights of animals and children are firmly on the global agenda, when only a hundred years ago most people would have thought such notions were absurd.
Last century we saw oppressive regimes fall when they failed to deliver product choice and abundance, banned advertising, and denied their populations brand choice. Their failure to deliver economic progress made these leaders paranoid and oppressive (killers). Democracy needs markets and property rights. Today we still have modern reminders of the dangers of anti-capitalist movements in the starvation economies of North Korea and Venezuela.
Perhaps too many marketers learnt their economic history in arts school?
So at a time when the world should be celebrating the benefits of global trade, many marketers are acting not just as if they are ignorant of its benefits, but that they are genuinely misinformed, i.e. they think it is harmful. This is very odd, a parallel would be doctors opposing medical research (of course there are homeopathic and naturopath quacks who do). Marketers should be the most vocal supporters of trade, of advertising, of brands. They should be standing up proudly for the astonishing amount of choice that the modern market economy (yes, that’s capitalism) delivers. If we of all people don’t, who will?
I think the industry has confused brand purpose with social purpose. A brand purpose is a mission or vision that the brand stands for. It creates value in the world. It is something that speaks to a basic human need or objective. It is not about charity or philanthropy. And it ties directly to the companies history and products. It is not something designed to atone for the commercialism of the business. We have confused brand purpose with brand penance.
I think this is another symptom of anti-capitalist and anti-free trade sentiment which dominates today, and, on a deeper level, a rejection of the ethical/moral ideas on which capitalism depends. It’s going to take big changes in the culture before we see a genuinely pro-capitalist sentiment come through.
I agree with Rory when he says the awards are a wankfest. Yes they are. The sinking ship of advertising industry needs a serious reboot – minus its narcissism.
But, I would read the ‘penance’ differently. There is certainly something rotten in what they do, that makes them feel guilty. The feeling has not come en-masse from nowhere – or do you think the poor sods have been brainwashed?
There is enough research to suggest the ill-effects of incessant marketing on social groups as well as individuals. There is enough research to suggest the ill effects to ecology owing to marketers who sugar coat their toxic effects with manipulative advertising. That is what is making marketers feel guilty. Their guilt is not unfounded. Give them credit for their feelings.
You are wrong to assume that marketers have been responsible for all betterment in the 20th century. In part, they have helped the economy. But the 20th century economic growth is largely based on extractive practices that obliterated much of social structures, ecology. Evidently, the guilty marketers have woken up to the reality that you have not.
The betterment was in large part, in spite of marketers – NGOs, governments, commons – paying with their taxes when marketers left. Consider the exxon oil spill. Consider coca cola induced obesity epidemic. Consider Walmart’s and now Amazon’s destructive practices that are destroying small retailers. I can go on with the list where marketers prospered at the expense of common resources that were appropriated, legally but not ethically.
Big corporates steal individual agency and replace it with rich minions. That’s what instinctually marketers are ashamed of.
Sneering at trade (by the landed and military elites) is thousands of years old. You are unwittingly continuing the tradition. You provide a good example of what I talk about in my article.
The trade (marketing) revolution started 10-15,000 years ago. It led to civilisation, scientific and industrial revolutions, the rise of democracy, human rights. Today, all the important metrics for human development (poverty, life expectancy, violence) are all headed in the right direction. It’s good to care about the world, but there is much to be proud of. You can feel less guilty.
I understand where you are coming from. I am not denying that market based economy has contributed to the betterment of the world. What I can’t fathom is the jump of conclusion thereafter – that because people before us contributed in making of the world, we should feel proud.
There are many problems with that perspective –
1. why do you feel the need to be be proud? why reject the emotion, whatever it might be – guilty, shame etc?
Sartre had a useful concept that is applicable here – ‘Bad Faith’. Read more about it here – https://thejinxedone.blogspot.com/2016/03/life-is-swamp.html
Essentially, bad faith is when we ‘want to believe’ in something so that it absolves us of our real impact.
mandating how we should feel for something as against what we actually feel is how we behave in ‘bad faith’.
2. why live vicariously? or rather why be proud of someone else’s accomplishments? Marketers before us might have done some good for the world but why should it make me feel proud? This is again problematic because it leads to blind side-taking instead of actually evaluating one’s role and one’s own actions.
3. and if you must take credit – then we must take credit for the complete impact.
the ‘trade’ or marketers might have contributed in shaping today’s world, but as much of their impact was destructive as was constructive. Be cognizant of it completely.
Lastly, its not guilt that’s driving marketers to bad ‘brand purposes’. its simply a lack of common sense.
My point was simple. It’s odd when we are living in the very best of times, partly brought about by commerce, should marketers be so anti-commerce.
First I want to thank Prof. Sharp. I find this post truly interesting and mentally refreshing as nowdays there is a strong tendency to approach political correctness related issues without intelectual honesty.
I fully agree that creative excellence should be separated from political correctness, unfortunately is not the case in Cannes as well as in Hollywood and many other media-relevant places around the world.
The main issue about some modern marketers is their attachement to political correctness, the same epidemic that is spreading all over universities and corporations.
They are not against the big money they make working for successful organizations and they don’t claim when they receive bonuses and prizes to be spent on nice holidays or expensive toys.
The culprit is always capytalism, western world, rotten democracy etc..but at same time they get paid by the corporations that do the inmoral business that (according with their vision) is destroying the world.
I will start respecting them the day they quit their fashion-driven living and get to grow organic veggies and donate their earned fortunes to charity.
Corporate world and market has many faults that should be corrected but to be a rich-red and show off your save the world cheap philosophy is not the right base to improve anything.
Here’s some evidence on the problem of ‘marketing’ marketing practice:
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