Why liberal brands must embrace a new authoritarianism to make their voice heard

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

The green and pro-diversity movements must fight fire with fire and ignite the flame-thrower of a new authoritarianism if they want to command a deeply penetrating share of voice.

Right now, the wave of anti-liberal populism crashing across the globe is in danger of drowning any voice they have.

The ‘Big Swinging Dick’ strongmen, from Trump in the US to General Prayut in Thailand, are commanding the stage, blaring out their messages to the masses, and it’s almost impossible for the soft voice of reason to neutralise the noise.

That doesn’t mean liberals should just lie down and take it.

Floyd Mayweather had the answer to Conor McGregor’s fight challenge. He got into the ring with him and showed the world who’s the boss.

Brand ambassador for Illamasqua makeup and LBGTQI+ activist Daniel Lismore is a shining example of how the green or pro-diversity movement can get into the ring and win, too.

Lismore was once described by Vogue as England’s most flamboyant dresser and has spoken at the V&A about his life as a piece of human art to a private audience that included the likes of Stephen Fry.

He wasn’t shy about making his feelings known about Trump’s BBF (best British friend) Nigel Farage at a recent Mayfair party. He took a lip liner and scrawled a four-letter word on his arm that was clearly meant to describe Farage.

That’s not passive. That’s not taking it lying down.

Donald Trump’s Muslim ban back in January spurred a lot of brands into action against the new rise of fascism. Nike, Starbucks, Kickstarter, Lyft and Airbnb all made their feelings known.

Nike chief executive Mark Parker sent a memo to employees condemning the order. He wrote that the company “celebrates diversity” and that, under the order, the company’s “values are being threatened”.

“This is a policy we don’t support,” wrote Parker. “Nike stands together against bigotry and any form of discrimination. Now, more than ever, let’s stand up for our values and remain open and inclusive as a brand and as a company. We are at our best when we recognize the value of our diverse community.”

Kickstarter tweeted on January 29: “Kickstarter opposes the #MuslimBan. We stand for inclusion, diversity, and our common humanity. #NoBan.”

The big tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Apple started out as vocal opponents but after the slightly watered down Muslim ban 2.0 came out in March, their opposition mysteriously stopped. That’s not the behaviour of any company ready to fight them on the beaches.

If humanism and inclusionism are to have a strong voice, the movement must stop over-intellectualising and pontificating. It has to be prepared to up to the ante and fight.

And if brands want to join the fight, they have to get real. The trend towards distortion and misrepresentation by advertisers who include representations of ethnic minorities or the LGBTQ+ community, even when there’s a total brand disconnect, isn’t helpful.

It’s the worst kind of box ticking, driven by a fear of being rumbled for not being politically correct enough.

According to the Times, advertisers are so worried about being accused of racism or homophobia they are now shying away from using images of white people and straight couples.

Brands that have featured gay couples well include Lloyds' 'For Your Next Steps' campaign and Tiffany's who ran a 'Will You?' gay proposal. Dove, owned by Unilever, used women from ethnic minorities recently in its ‘real beauty’ campaign.

A survey of 500 companies carried out by Shutterstock indicates marketing departments are now putting diversity above relevance to their target audience to avoid accusations of bigotry.

The survey found half of marketing departments had consciously increased use of racially diverse images over the past year and a third increased their use of LGBTQ+ couples.

A third of advertisers questioned said they had used fewer white models and heterosexual couples over the past year.

Tellingly, more than a third said they were taking this approach to “prevent perceived discrimination”, not to promote diversity itself.

A majority of those surveyed who have used images of gay couples admitted to doing this even if it didn’t fit with their brand.

Now the marketing industry, which used to have a reputation for under-representing minorities, has switched to patronising them with skewed, inclusive advertising, even when there’s no proper fit.

‘Doing activism’ just for the sake of it can do a brand more harm than good. A brand that recently had its fingers burned was Pepsi who was accused of mocking the Black Lives Matter movement.

Being inclusive is nothing new per se. Ikea has been using gay imagery since 1994 – it was the first to feature a gay couple in a mainstream ad. It’s just that diversity for the sake of it doesn’t work.

Brands have to harden and sharpen their messages, make them relevant. Just 'featuring' is not enough, and not even particularly helpful.

Yes, Unilever-owned Dove included a trans mum in its new #RealMums motherhood campaign. Yes, in India, Procter & Gamble’s recent Vicks campaign – ‘Touch of care’ – advocates for trans rights.

But the reality remains that the LBGTQ+ community still thinks adland is falling short, that their portrayal in marketing is mostly inauthentic.

Ogilvy Pride did a historical review of LGBTQ+ characters on TV, film and in ads. Over two decades, a character will have gone from negative representation – such as being characterised as an ‘unusual’ homosexual who is murdered – to some clichéd pro-diversity representation.

The brands who seem to have broad policies on diversity include Aviva, Coca-Cola, Walmart, Kellogg and General Mills. These are often singled out by LGBTQ+ rights advocacy groups as heading in the right direction.

Heineken’s ad, in which it paired up strangers with conflicting views on transgender rights, climate change and feminism, struck the right chord with consumers.

The two-minute-long commercial called ‘Worlds Apart: An Experiment’ brings together three pairs of real people, not actors, who manage to overcome their differences and opt for tolerance and a beer instead of a fight.

It was edgy, on point and a perfect fit for the brand. I’ll drink to that.

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