Is advertising finally ready to shake off its last taboos?

The success of Maltesers' campaign showing “the lighter side” of disability demonstrates the power of breaking taboos and embracing inclusivity as marketing strategy, writes Simon Massey, global CEO of The Gild.

A woman talking about cerebral palsy joking about her love life, a woman in a wheelchair at a wedding accidentally running over the bride’s foot, a deaf woman using sign language to tell a story about her dog swallowing her hearing aid… You’d be forgiven for thinking all these scenarios had absolutely nothing to do with chocolate. That was before Mars broke a taboo and embraced inclusivity as a central tenet of its Maltersers brand’s now famous ad campaign.

The campaign aired during the opening ceremony of the Paralympics having won £1m worth of airtime in Channel 4’s ‘Superhumans Wanted’ competition, and it has fast become a trailblazer for the power of diverse and inclusive marketing. ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’ has long-been one of the key rallying cries for greater diversity in advertising and Maltesers has successfully expressed this strategy perfectly and relevantly by maintaining the thread of humour and authenticity throughout each execution.

It’s about time brands and mainstream marketing followed in Maltesers’ steps and started embracing subjects that have historically been taboo for fear of causing offence. Through embracing taboos we initiate a move towards a society where inclusivity and equality are truly mainstream rather than just for debate. The world at large might be oscillating from outright discrimination (take Trump’s comments on women and people of colour, right through to immigration being a key reason for our own Brexit vote) to healthy debate on diversity (gender equality and such). But advertisers have by and large been guilty of sitting on the sidelines in a bid to avoid offence and alienation.

The result? A safer, vanilla, kind of advertising that risks connecting with no one.

This inability to challenge the status quo innate to this breed of ‘global blanding’ is in stark contrast to the ultra-transparency, and at times uncomfortable truth, which is broadcast everyday across social media channels.

Ultimately, the truth – however uncomfortable – can be a very powerful marketing tool. Witness the outpouring of support and positive media coverage garnered by Chinese swimming sensation Fu Yuanhui, who explained how her period had affected her Olympic performance. Or the cut-through achieved by Bodyform when it released its latest ad campaign, featuring actual blood. The campaign’s strapline, ‘no blood should hold us back’, has successfully challenged the myths surrounding women’s periods and the self-imposed straightjacket of traditional communications models.

This is truly revolutionary advertising and underlines the unique ability of marketing to change perspectives on deeply ingrained and often erroneous preconceptions.

It’s this sort of creative bravery that offers rich opportunity for brands: taking part in everyday conversations, however challenging, and doing so with relevance (and maybe a little well-placed irreverence) is clearly aligned to business success (as Mars is no doubt hopng to prove with Maltesers).

However, while brands should challenge themselves to take risks they must also be authentic. No token campaigns here please – consumers will see right through you. Authenticity is all when it comes to such personal engagement, and it’s no surprise that Maltesers had the help of disability charity Scope for guidance and a hands-on role in the creative process.

The beauty of the Maltesers campaign is not just the diversity that makes it stand out from the norm. The fact that the brand stayed true to itself with a common thread of humour which chimes with its “look on the light side” positioning gives it a certain credibility to show disabled people to be fundamentally no different to able bodied people – humorous, on the pull and sexually active. By being inclusive, the confectionary brand gave us licence to laugh in the company of disabled people, moving us thankfully on from laughing ‘at’ to laughing ‘with’ – a vast improvement on the previous middle ground of ‘ignoring’. This refreshing strategy was not tokenistic or patronising, but honest and bold.

This is the very best marketing: it does more than simply hold a mirror up to society; it challenges the very fundamentals of how consumers’ think and behave. It champions positive change. Here’s to more of that.

Simon Massey is chief executive of The Gild

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