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Brand Strategy Ogilvy Mayor of London

Ogilvy’s behavioral scientist defends Mayor of London ‘Maaate’ campaign


By Hannah Bowler, Senior reporter

July 25, 2023 | 10 min read

A campaign encouraging people to call out their friends’ misogynistic behavior drew criticism from some corners of the industry. The behavioral scientist behind it explains the approach it took.

'Say maaate to a mate' campaign for the mayor of London

'Say maaate to a mate' campaign for the mayor of London

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recently worked with Ogilvy UK on the ‘Say maaate to a mate’ campaign that aims to take on sexism. But since its debut, the work has polarized the public and ad industry.

The campaign is part of the Mayor’s long-term ambition to tackle violence against women in the capital and follows the award-winning 2022 campaign, ‘Have a word.’

‘Say maaate to a mate’ is hooked on two pieces of creative. The first is a set of out-of-home ads where the word ‘maaate’ is used as a metaphor to crush misogynistic language. The second is an interactive film following a group of friends. As one friend oversteps the line, the ‘skip ad’ button is replaced with ‘Mate,’ allowing the user to put a stop to sexism on the screen.

There has been debate over the semantics of ‘mate’; the decision to place responsibility on the friend, not the perpetrator; and whether the campaign trivializes the issue.

Critical headlines in The Daily Mail and The Times cited women’s rights campaigners who have dubbed it “naive” while others have accused it of being “patronizing, totally inadequate and a waste of public money.”

To address the backlash, The Drum spoke to David Fanner, the consultant at Ogilvy’s Behavioral Science Practice division who led the research underpinning the work.

He sees the friendship group as the most appropriate way to stamp out low-level misogyny. That idea stems from his research that “men really don’t want to interact with strangers because they believe they feel it’s not their business.”

“This is where some of the misunderstanding comes from,” he says to criticism that the campaign has the wrong focus. “This is not when someone is being violent, this is low-level misogyny among friends and this is when men can be the most helpful.”

Encouraging intervention in these circumstances requires a level of understanding of where the line is and what the difference is between “harm and humor.” But because of the diversity of London, Fanner says this means different things to different people. And that’s where this might also be polarizing.

“That is where we’re hitting a tension point, that the line between these is so varied by different people. And, of course, London is very diverse with lots of different worldviews, so my line is different from someone else’s – that was really hard,” Fanner says. That is why the campaign deliberately doesn’t define the boundaries of misogyny.

Instead of using surveys and research papers, Ogilvy decided on an ethnography study which meant spending time observing men in male-dominated spaces - for example, at the gym, barbers or football practice.

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Influencing the bystander, not the perpetrator

This campaign is squarely aimed at the bystander, encouraging men to call out their friends. But one marketing consultant, Samantha Haycock, questioned this on LinkedIn: “Why are the good men expected to take responsibility for the toxic behavior of others? Why not address the message to the perpetrators? It seems coy and risks alienating the very men you want to engage.”

Fanner argues that, in the past, messaging to influence the perpetrator hasn’t worked because it’s often met with reluctance. “But if three of my mates are telling you that you went a bit far, then that is super powerful,” he says.

In the interactive film, viewers see the de-escalation of events after the ‘mate’ button has been clicked and then the friends continue to enjoy hanging out and the friend remains to be liked by his peers. “The important part for us was that you didn’t just see the reaction of being called out, but then the fact that ended on a high, because again, men don’t want to do something that was going to rock the boat socially,” Fanner says.

The semantics of ‘maaate’

There’s also the way ’mate’ has been used. Brand strategist Alex Micu said: “Something in the multiple A’s does not click. People don’t say maaate in a serious way. They say more like: mate...”

However, Fanner says the call-out was always intended to be subtle. “We don’t want to make it too deep or too heavy; as soon as you make it too heavy, you ruin the vibe and men don’t want to do that,” he says. From his research, a change in the tone with a word like ‘mate’ or a disappointing head shake, for example, is enough to let a friend know they’ve crossed the line.

The third-party researcher also found that men wanted and needed a tool to call out their friends. The men interviewed reported that often the most instinctive reaction to misogyny without a victim present is to “giggle and move on,” hoping it’s a one-off. “So, we are simply replacing awkward giggle with a better alternative,” Fanner says.

In response to the added A’s, Fanner says, the science of “vowel lengthening” gave the word “care and respect” rather than an abrupt ‘Mate’ which could be threatening. Finally, the word mate, Fanner stresses, is “universally understood” even when variations like ‘bro’ exist.

‘Sacred’ group dynamics

The psychology behind male group dynamics played a key influence in the direction of the campaign. Men interviewed for the research reported fear of “killing the mood” of a light-hearted conversation.

“No man wants to ruin the night by being woke, so we cannot make this about virtue signaling,” Fanner continues. “We had to be really pragmatic and that’s why there was a need for an intervention, which didn’t upset the boat.”

There was also a need for an approach that men of any status within a group could feel comfortable using. Fanner offered the example of an employee calling out his boss. “You can’t be too heavy-handed here because they’re your boss; there’s more power there,” he explains. “So we needed something that even the person with the lowest status in the group could do to call out misogyny.”

Other recommendations from the behavioral science team included: ‘Work with men, not against them’ by enabling bystanders to approach perpetrators from a place of love and respect. ‘Make it easy and non-threatening’ by using humor. ‘Create cultural safety’ by reassuring men that their group will back them very quickly if they speak up and, finally, ‘Nudge pragmatically’ by targeting under 40s who are easier to persuade.

“We are all struggling to understand that at what point society is ready to understand what it is OK to do, in the same way that other social ills had this moment before, for example with racism or maybe homophobia,” Fanner concludes. “If anyone says anything racist right now in 2023, everyone in the room can feel comfortable calling it out. But misogyny is not at that level where people feel comfortable calling it out.”

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