Could entertainment make brand activism actually work?
A view from Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock

Could entertainment make brand activism actually work?

Being 'woke' doesn't make your brand an activist. But entertainment could.

I’m watching a Boots ad. It’s hella inclusive, featuring a disabled person, a gender non-conformist, a plus-sized model and an older model. 

I am left with a clear message: Boots is inclusive and accepts everybody. 

It’s not the only one keen to press this home on all platforms at all times. From Diageo to Sainsbury’s to Levi’s, these brands are pushing their products under the banner of "inclusivity" and "acceptance". 

As a person of colour from a minority background, am I meant to feel included and empowered from all this? My first thought isn’t often "Great". It’s actually: "Why?"

Have marketers actually taken a step back and realised how this tsunami of "brand activism" might come across? Do we think that those on the fringes – or, in the worst cases, suffering from the ills of society – see this form of advertising as a real call to arms?

Or is it more "We are woke. Buy our stuff"?

It took me back to a Bill Hicks sketch from the 1990s. After apoplectically denouncing the evils of marketing, Hicks plays the role of a marketing guru: "I know what Bill’s going for there… the anti-marketing market. He’s very smart." 

He hits back in his own voice: "I am not doing that, you fucking evil scumbags."

Hicks might have gone to an extreme in a very different era of marketing, but there’s something about what he said that still rings true.

Activism is a loaded word that often involves a willingness to die for a cause because you believe in it so dearly.

When marketers opportunistically use it to market something totally irrelevant to said cause, it can be pretty transparent that you’re trying to conduct what Nobel Prize-winning economist Alvin Roth calls "repugnant transactions". (Lest we forget what Pepsi did.) 

So as audiences start to call out poorly thought-through brand activism, should brands be doing it at all?

The answer, for me, is yes – with a big caveat.

The big difference between the 1990s that Hicks lived in and our era now is that many of the public institutions, broadcasters, NGOs, support networks and governments that allowed activists to flourish have run out of cash. And one thing that a lot of successful companies have is substantial marketing budgets. 

Most grassroots activists for any cause would say the right kind of partners could act as real catalysts for change. But as we’ve seen with the above, good intentions combined with simplistic marketing targets are never enough. 

So my caveat is: there needs to be a rationale and connection, and that needs to be clearly understood by audiences.

For brands such as Tony’s Chocolonely, Parley, Oatly and Toms, it’s all too easy. Their products are in fact a form of activism – a direct consequence of conscious consumerism. 

Heritage brands trying to find relevance have a tougher task at hand without appearing Machiavellian. The likes of Nike have managed it with some success.

But, all too often, good intentions around complicated issues can go awry.

This is in no small part due to the fact that it takes time and effort to explain to audiences why you have a right to be in the conversation in the first place.

That’s where I think entertainment could play such a powerful role.

From the worlds of documentary feature film through to TV and online, factual entertainment has helped enable activists time and time again: Jamie’s School Dinners; Super Size Me; Bowling for Columbine; An Inconvenient Truth; Cowspiracy; India’s Daughter; 13th; even softer shows such as Queer Eye that promote understanding and inclusivity in a truly entertaining way.

The list of agenda-driven entertainment helping drive change around important issues is long, successful and decades old.

Some brands are choosing to enable these kinds of stories as part of their wider mission. 

Take Patagonia. It has been creating beautiful films that discuss issues around the environment in its own unique style, directly aimed at the brand’s core audience. Its 2019 film Treeline, for example, follows skiers, snowboarders, scientists and healers as they pay homage to forests.

This follows a long-term commitment to entertainment from Patagonia, which saw the power of documentaries to help "inspire solutions to the environmental crisis" way back in 2015.  

File-transfer service WeTransfer has a different tack through supporting and giving a platform to very different kinds of entertainment projects that are rooted in activism in its mission to enable creative ideas: from John Legend’s new series Can’t Just Preach to Sounds of Tehran, a documentary about rave music as a form of activism in Iran. 

Others such as Procter & Gamble have partnered master online storytellers, such as the company Great Big Story, to show activism where the brand has a relevant role. The Words Matter tells the story of how a P&G employee and LGBT+ activist in the 1990s changed the laws around sexuality and equal employment opportunity. And many others are starting to take this more nuanced approach.

We have to be honest with our audiences and ourselves. We are using activism to sell services, products and brands.

If we stop there, our transactions will remain "repugnant". 

But as Roth outlines, if we do not use our subjects as means but rather ends, then the public can see these transactions in a different light. 

In other words, if we’re straight up and genuinely support activists with good reason, our transactions become not only acceptable but also well-received. 

And, in order to be straight up, we need to be nuanced and in-depth but also accessible with our audiences.

Entertainment is perhaps the best way to do that in a language our consumers not only understand but also actively engage with.

Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is head of Pi Studios at We Are Pi and a former Channel 4 commissioning editor

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