A while ago, before all the hoo-ha about Tesco, I saw an ad for a BOGOF on crisps, above that famous line: "Every little helps."
And I thought: well, you’re helping to make people unhealthy there, which wastes millions of pounds in healthcare and kills people early.
This might seem a tad unfair – after all, crisps are still legal. But it was the BOGOF encouraging increased consumption, coupled with the line, that stuck in my throat like a huge ridged steak-flavour snack. In my view, a brand needs to have the genuine interests of its customers at its heart… otherwise it’s a non-brand.
And that led me to a question: is it time for the trivial industry to get serious?
I was inspired by the fact that I recently met one of my heroes – Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever and architect of the Sustainable Living Plan. This pledges to halve Unilever’s carbon footprint by 2020 and make all of its brands a genuine force for good. It’s the most ambitious commercial mission out there. And also incredibly smart.
Because the biggest trend in the commercial world right now is the rise of empowered and knowledgeable consumers who are demanding accountability.
I have been doing some online judging for the white Pencil recently, and a lot of the smartest ideas embrace a grass-roots, bottom-up approach. As Naomi Klein said recently, empowered individuals are our main hope of survival. (Unilever aside, maybe our only hope.) Because big business and politics have proved themselves to be incredibly corrupt, greedy, stupid and short-sighted over the last generation.
The best chance for our children to inhabit a world that isn’t a complete nightmare lies in the potential of individuals getting together via the internet to make their voices heard.
Judging the white Pencil was probably the most inspiring judging I have ever done – and the hardest. Trying to decide if a particular cause is great while the idea may be only average is heart-breaking. But it was great to see all that talent trying to make the world a better place. And, incidentally, usually avoiding paid-for media to do it – making apps, clothing, events etc instead.
Clearly, all successful brands will soon be subjected to massive scrutiny. Even as I write this, Nicole Kidman is being attacked for endorsing Etihad Airways by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which claims that the airline is "abusive" to its staff.
Those businesses that have ripped off their customers with misleading promotions – well, the public could come after them like Operation Yewtree on crystal meth. I think this is predominantly incredibly positive.
Of course, there is a negative side to it – and it’s highlighted in Jon Ronson’s new book about the public shaming of individuals on Twitter.
But, to me, the main positive is that the energy is out there. Massive numbers of people are frustrated – and, according to Ronson, the big stimulus for a Twitter onslaught is "misuse of privilege".
Empowered consumers won’t take cynical behaviour lightly. They destroyed the News of the World, which was the biggest-selling newspaper in Britain, in a fit of moral disgust. And the actions of those ordinary people were far more punitive than anything the establishment would ever mete out.
In the 1976 film Network, Peter Finch played a newsreader embittered by the corruption he saw. He urged his TV viewers to go to their windows and shout: "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more." He created a viral piece of action.
And the interesting thing is that a huge – I mean, really huge – number of companies could get attacked.
Tax avoidance? Encouraging addictive or unhealthy behaviour? Exploitative supply chain? Misleading people? Dubious ingredients? Unnecessary carbon footprint? Cover-ups?
You could get attacked for any one of them.
A friend in the newspaper industry said that, going back eight years, nobody really thought phone-hacking was wrong. It was just regarded as an example of what the ever-changing technological world was bringing about. There are big lessons for data exploitation here.
But, as Polman said, the current generation has the opportunity to right all the wrongs and create a decent, sustainable future.
Which is a brilliant way of saying: the last generation has completely fucked the planet up and, if we don’t move quickly, it’s game over for our kids. That’s something to ponder for everybody working in advertising.
Are you complicit in something nasty – or are you one of the good guys? How do you feel about the accounts you are working on this week?
We all have a choice. IfbPolman can do good in one of the biggest companies in the world, you can do it in yours.
If you want a selfish reason – last year, the two whitebPencil winners went on to win black Pencils.
But there’s a bigger reason, and it’s known by a rather unfashionable name.
For me, the only way is ethics.
Steve Henry is a founder of Decoded and HHCL. He is the foreman of D&AD’s white Pencil jury
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