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Social Good Marketing

Woke-washing or social purpose? Museum of Brands exhibition spurs debate on (in)famous ads


By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

March 11, 2020 | 5 min read

For better or for worse, brands are awakening to the role that marketing can play in positively influencing society. The Museum of Brands has tackled this divisive topic with the launch of an evocative exhibition entitled 'When Brands Take a Stand'.

Museum of Brands exhibition

Woke-washing or social purpose? Museums of Brands exhibition inspires ad debate

Keen to explore why brand purpose campaigns rile people up, the Museum of Brands has presented much of the work that hit the headlines throughout history. To gauge opinion, it asks visitors to actively judge and debate whether brands should get involved in social issues - and if so, what is the right way to do so.

While some ads have proven to drive social justice on some level, others have fallen into 'cancel culture' territory; Gillette's 'The Best a Man Can Be' infamously divided opinion, for example.

“Historically, brands through their advertising, have had an impact on creating social norms and creating the images that we have of society,” said Anna Terry, the development and commercial director of Museum of Brands.

“Now marketers are starting to challenge some of those stereotypes, and we wanted to really look at this new movement of brand activism.”

Museum of Brands exhibition 2

Terry pointed to the Advertising Association's recent report on the social contribution of UK advertising as an instigator, claiming it "gave the exhibition a good base of case studies".

Presented at this year's Lead conference, the advertising think-tank Credos examined the industry’s economic and social contribution, focusing on ways the industry supports social good across the UK.

While public trust in advertising in 2019 had hit a record low of 25%, the research claimed people in the UK are still relatively positive about the industry’s impact on society with 42% of people agreeing that advertising had the power to help make the world a better place.

Despite this, less than a quarter of respondents disagreed with this statement, 36% said advertising's influence was neither positive not negative and 18% said it was negative.

Such findings show that while some consumers are happy to see brands take a stand, others are not so convinced, unearthing the complexity of the debate.

“It’s a complicated area as to why some of these campaign work and why others fail,” detailed Terry. “And what we’re trying to point out is there are particular reasons why campaigns fail, like is it appropriate for that brand talk on that topic?"

In an attempt to explore all the various ways that brands have impacted society, the exhibitions goes back to the earliest work taking a stand, like Bovril's wartime handbooks during World War I, or Bourneville which encouraged consumers to 'save the carton' which Terry said shows "they were trying to influence people's behaviours."

Ecover, which has been purpose-driven since it started in the 70s, is included, alongside Iceland's milk cartons with photos of missing children from the 90s and Coca-Cola's famous hilltop commercial.

Milk missing carton

Moving forward to the brand purpose that we know today, among the campaigns the exhibition presents, viewers will find Pepsi's disastrous Kendall Jenner spot, Iceland's banned-from-TV palm oil Christmas ad and HSBC's 'We Are Not An Island' which many accused as being anti-Brexit.

It also includes Bodyform's 'Blood Normal', Barbie's 'Dream Gap', Always 'Like a Girl' and BrewDog's 'Vote Punk.'

Alongside snippets of the campaigns chosen, the exhibition presents viewers information on what the work's impact was, the context behind it, the reasons for doing it, and then invited people to comment either in person or to share comments on social media.

Terry highlighted here that there is no particular order to the exhibition and that the team has tried to keep "quite a neutral position, to encourage viewers to come and make their own opinions." This is to get people to come to terms with commercialising social issues and political divides themselves.

"What's good for us is a lot of our collection is physical objects," explained Terry. "But with this, it's great to have an exhibition where advertising is on show because we can keep adding to it from the responses people give us while it's on show."

'When Brands Take a Stand' is open now at the Museum of Brands.

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