How to advertise to a disagreeable world

A few weeks before the Brexit vote a friend from one of the big PR agencies called me to excitedly tell me… “Bob Geldof wants to hijack Farage’s Leave flotilla in a Remain boat. What do you think?” I (genuinely) said I thought it was an diabolical idea, that was way too confrontational and therefore destined to backfire spectacularly.

However, as the image above will show you, no one listened. Not even me, because a few days later there I was, stood next to Bob in my best approximation of yachting gear, doing wanker signs at the Leave boat. Some Leave strategists credit this as the exact moment they knew they’d won; the moment when a bunch of metropolitan-elite-looking-berks appeared to abuse a bunch of struggling fishermen.

The scene was broadcast again last week in Channel 4's Uncivil War drama (still available on All4) and made me reflect on the gulf between the people on the Remain and Leave boats and how creative agencies need to respond to this dichotomy. How do we avoid doing wanker signs (while wearing white jeans) at people worse off than ourselves?

More diverse diversity and less virtuous ads

It goes without saying that most agencies are horribly white bastions of hetero-bourgeois male privilege. That said, there does exist an aspiration to promote women and recruit a more diverse workforce, even if it’s just, for some, for appearances sake. One audience however that nobody’s out there hiring are people who have come out as Leavers or who identify as people who think “that perhaps there has been too much immigration”.

In fact, the growing liberal orthodoxy in advertising has led to some big assumptions that everyone in the world cares about the same sorts of things that we do; that advertising is a good medium to educate the ignorant masses.

That can be the only explanation for adverts such as We Believe: the Best Men Can Be – a didactic piece of virtue signalling from a brand that hitherto just talked about how it adds blades to its razors. It definitely won’t mean much to the Essex residents we vox-popped for a documentary recently: most had never heard of Harvey Weinstein or #Metoo, let alone felt that Gillette needed to do or say anything about it.

Lessons from Leave

To be fair to Bob-in-a-China-Shop, at least he tried to do something while the London-based communications industry was quietly assuming that Remain had it in the bag. There was no Remain research, strategy or campaign, so daft, desperate stunts became the order of the day.

Returning to our recent research in the UK’s south east, there is no substitute to face-to-face conversations for providing quality insights. Vote Leave toured the country, using focus groups to test voter opinion. This qualitative approach, combined with big data analysis helped identify and encourage 2.8 million non-voters to turn up to polling stations. The research and data accumulated enabled Leave to target a receptive audience, with dog whistle messages, that orbited a great slogan which created a future-focused narrative: ‘Take Back Control.’ If there ever was a Remain slogan it was totally forgettable, much like Hillary Clinton’s 84 different variations which lost to ‘Make America Great Again’.

Let’s never speak of it again

There’s been some good ads that made clever use of a post-Brexit context like Droga5’s Together Forever song for Ancestry. However most people have gone through the stages of Brexit euphoria or grief, with 70% of the UK bored by Brexit coverage, moving beyond acceptance to the “I will punch you if you mention it again” phase.

Like many people I cringed so hard I noticeably spasmed when confronted by JWT’s HSBC adverts in which they have the nerve to tell people in Manchester, London and elsewhere that they like lots of different stuff. These ads have been rightly pilloried by commentators including Tim Montgomerie (“We are an island actually – full of villages and towns your bank deserted”) who see them as an opportunistic attempt by HSBC to be, for once, on the right side of an argument. What’s more, over half the nation and more than half of their customers (60% of those aged 65+ voted Leave) disagree with the sentiment of these adverts, while one in four people under the age of 37 are using ‘digital only’ challenger banks.

Again, it seems like JWT and HSBC were allowing their own beliefs to dictate the content of the campaign, rather than what’s most likely to appeal to the market.

Political vs social and cultural value

UK students aren’t letting anyone who may disagree with their strident, left of centre opinions speak at university events – just in case their inordinately pierced ears are offended by an unorthodox opinion... Some agencies are behaving in a similar way by only listening to and projecting opinions that confirm their own beliefs.

As supposed masters of communication, who are meant to be taking part in a two-way conversation, we need to either be more open to a range of opinions or stop ourselves from making adverts with a political point of view. If we pick the latter approach and decide to steer clear of purpose and social value, perhaps we will risk our clients losing relevance, making them seem distantanced from society and humanity (sort of like Prince Charles).

I really believe social purpose and cultural value can add value to brands but only if they qualify in terms of their own track record (so that’s HSBC out of the picture) and if the target audience comprises conscious consumers who a) are aware of an issue and b) will respond positively to a brand aligning itself with it.

An alternative strategy from brands looking for increased relevance, but who have counted themselves out of the social value game, is good old fashioned culture or sport alignment. In fact someone at Gillette HQ is probably wishing right now they’d just sponsored the grand prix or tennis or something and done an ad with someone in a changing room just having a shave...

After all, no one enjoys being called a wanker, especially when it’s a wanker calling them one.

Joe Wade is managing director at Don't Panic

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