Ads and brands: to what extent should marketers be revising history?

"George Orwell famously opined on the dangers of historical revisionism"

The recent powderkeg debate around whether or not to remove US confederate era statues raises an interesting question: to what extent can and should we seek to revise history? Theo Izzard-Brown, chief strategy officer at McCann London, looks at where brands and advertisers sit in the space of historical revisionism.

George Orwell famously opined on the dangers of historical revisionism. In his book 1984, the fictional character Winston Smith, an editor at the Ministry of Truth, observes in his diary that: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

The issue of altering the historical record to match the prevailing winds of societal attitudes, rather than acknowledging a holistic understanding of the past is high on today’s news agenda.

Historical revisionism is by no means a new phenomenon. Don’t forget before the conversation turned to confederate era ‘heroes’ like General E. Lee, Isis were merrily smashing up the library of Palmyra, proud Iraqis were defiantly toppling monuments to their former dictator in Firdaus Sqaure, and Oxford University students had Cecil Rhodes firmly in their cross-hairs. Not even Admiral Nelson escaped scrutiny. There are many who would rather rewrite or expunge that which in history they find uncomfortable and prefer not to acknowledge.

In its own parochial way, advertising can also be guilty of selectivism – of presenting an intentionally narrow aperture on a brand, one that we deem most appealing or palatable to its intended audience. Likewise brand history is all too often rejected in favour of something ‘new’ when the context changes, much like the statue of General E. Lee in Charlottesville.

But brands just like people are complex, rarely all good or all bad. How should we feel about Tate & Lyle’s historical role in the slave trade when enjoying an exhibition at the Tate Modern? Or the complexity of Tesco’s equine-infused supply chain when tucking into tonight’s dinner? Or how about that favourite new Hugo Boss suit having learned of the brand’s awkward association with the Nazi party? How should businesses and brands acknowledge these parts of their history without being held hostage to them either?

In an era of authenticity, the ability to fully acknowledge and account for one’s actions past and present seems important. Brands should aspire to add to the cultural discourse instead of taking away from it. There’s something about knowing the full picture that leads to a richer, healthier discussion… irrespective of whether you’re a statue or a brand.

At the end of the British Raj, the new rulers of India didn’t destroy the statues of their colonial masters – instead they removed them and placed them in a park where people can still visit them and more importantly learn why they were erected in the first place and so too why they were (re)moved.

Meanwhile the American city of Richmond in Virginia has kept its conferederate statues, but chosen to elevate the other side of the story by erecting new statues honoring a more diverse set of heroes including tennis champion and Richmond native Arthur Ashe. Richmond has found a way of allowing two histories to co-exist in the same location. A once dominant didactive narrative is exposed as such and the discourse around it made richer through the addition of another historically overlooked perspective, that of African-Americans.

With frequent relaunch and retelling, it’s perhaps unsurprising that brand narratives can undergo successive dilution. An issue compounded by the tendency to expunge all previous advertising from the brand’s public archive aka YouTube. With the average tenure of CMOs now just three years, it’s not uncommon to encounter clients with no historic knowledge of the brand they’re charged with stewarding. No wonder people report feeling that advertising is disingenuine.

Shouldn't ‘authenticity’ today necessitate an understanding of where a brand has come from as well as where it’s going? Unless marketers become comfortable with the uncomfortable when the cultural context changes they risk repeating the same mistakes their brand has already made.

Let us hold brands to the same standards we do people. When they err let them acknowledge and take responsibility. Successful brands understand that love and loyalty is born not of their infallibility, but of their willingness to undertake self-improvement. Tesco exemplified this standard, after it was branded the villain over the horsemeat scandal. After issuing a simple unambiguous public apology, the supermarket giant won back consumers’ hearts by addressing a deeper issue – that of sustainable sourcing and supply chain transparency. Likewise McDonald’s, once pilloried for its questionable food regulations, overhauled its entire operation and is now rightly heralded as having some of the most rigorous food safety standards.

This is why it’s difficult to admire Pepsi’s response to its lamentable Kendall Jenner ad. Ironically, Pepsi sought to appropriate the very same wave of youthful social outrage that helped turn the debate over confederate statues into the flashpoint it has now become. Instead of airbrushing its existence from recent memory they should have put their hands up, admitted using bad judgement, and conceded it was a bad idea. We all make mistakes, and frankly I’d like them a lot more for that.

Perhaps in order for brands to build enduring relationships, advertisers should not curate their history in such narrow, rigid, or totemic terms, but rather in more expansive, holistic and honest ones. You don’t get to be truly loved until you can publicly embrace your fallibility, acknowledge your missteps, and take responsibility for addressing them. Just ask Justin Gatlin who learned the hard way at the recent 2017 World Athletics Championships that no amount of ‘charity work’ makes up for for a history of doping if you can’t first acknowledge or apologise to the fans for your wrongdoing.

Authenticity isn’t just a woolly concept – it’s an honest account of success and failure, or if not failure – actions that could be interpreted differently out of context. Brand archaeology isn’t something marketers should be afraid of. Today more than ever brands must own their own history. Furthermore its incumbent on agencies in pursuit of truth to present the whole face of the brand, its past, present and future.

Theo Izzard-Brown is chief strategy officer at McCann London

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