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?