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Diverse or divisive? Beware anger in advertising (not to mention politics)

By Chris Lewis | Chief executive officer



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September 12, 2023 | 7 min read

Ready for a (brief) history lesson? Chris Lewis of agency Team Lewis shares a historical perspective on how hate and division took their throne in discourse – and warns against pledging allegiance.

Graffiti of screaming man with his head in his hands

Does anger have a place in advertising? Chris Lewis thinks not. / Aarón Blanco Tejedor via Unsplash

My old man told me to never discuss religion or politics. “Life’s too short”, he would say. He came from an age when life was often cut short, violently. The wartime generation had seen enough of division and hatred. It led them directly to death and destruction on an unimaginable scale: a hundred million souls, mostly civilians. The post-war peace was concluded by a consensus. There had to be a better way. The United Nations and International Monetary Fund were the cornerstones of what later became known as the ‘rules-based order’. Politicians learned the lesson that all violence starts with anger.

But time passed and we grew complacent. We became ever-more connected. Facts were plentiful and as with any commodity in abundance, they became devalued. In the pursuit (or retention) of audiences, facts were turned into entertainment. Consensus was commoditized.

There were two necessary conditions for this. The first was a communications revolution that led to a proliferation of social media channels. The second was the speed of the internet. Speed has always had an inverse linear relationship with truth.

Plus, now, you could go direct to followers without buying media. Without journalism. Without checking anything. Once you set yourself free from the facts, anything’s possible.

This all created insatiable demand for fresh and ever-more glycaemic digital donuts, which our industry supplies. Cats, houses, and even trees that look like Hitler, for example.

The appeal of the divisive

Now, if you’re in the creative industry, there’s never been a better time to be alive. Brands – commercial, political, social, charitable – want to reach bigger addressable audiences and so make their content more diverse and more inclusive. Communications now includes all ethnicities, disabilities, sexualities, families and ages. It’s almost more noticeable when they don’t.

But inclusivity can also exclude those without economic franchise who feel marginalized. If they’re unwilling or unable to participate, inclusivity can have, for them, the opposite effect. They feel excluded. Some opportunist politicians play to this.

It works like this: you pick an issue and say something divisive. The subsequent explosion from those who are inclusive sucks the oxygen out of the room. There are normally three players in this dynamic. A person or brand wanting publicity; a person or brand being profitably offended; and a media interest (either social or broadcast) that loves a bunfight.

Thus, the message gets amplified. Anger becomes a new PR propellant, like petrol. It spreads virally. It sets a new standard. Anger as advertising.

Why do brands want to embrace the divisive? One logical reason is that it gets everyone talking about them. This is the school of ‘any publicity is good publicity’. But be careful what you wish for. It rests on the idea that the publicity boost offsets the negative effects of any boycotting. Pressure organization Ethical Consumer keeps a pretty comprehensive list of these boycotts. It’s a long list.

Whatever the reason, divisiveness is a sword with two edges. Why? Because we are reduced to a color set against another color. Black versus white versus red versus blue versus green versus yellow versus purple. Even our rainbows have been co-opted. Politics has colored everything. The problem is that what looks smart in the short term can be awkward in the long term when trying to unwind a specific position.

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What good is politics?

Brands seem to think that politics is just like business. It isn’t. Business is about planning for next year. Politics is about surviving until next week. The commentariat around it is also confusing, arbritrary, and utterly unpredictable. Eisenhower once warned America about the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. Well, we now have a media-industrial complex, and it comes with its own vested interest in creating counterfactual conflict. It sells popcorn.

You see, just when you think you’ve got politics, you haven’t. In politics, there are no right answers. There are only things that are possible and things that aren’t (at certain times). Divisive politics holds dangers for consumer brands. Especially for ones we put in our bodies. The hallmark of an ingested brand is trust. That’s why they tend to be the most conservative with their marketing.

I’m not saying that organizations shouldn’t have a political point of view. But maybe they shouldn’t put it front and center of their marketing. They should have values. Of course they should. But done right, the values should parenthesize, not politicize. Diversity will always beat divisiveness in the long term. Or put another way, you achieve nothing with hate.

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TEAM LEWIS is a global marketing agency, delivering Creative Campaigns for Commercial and Community Causes. The company has 25 offices throughout Asia, EMEA and North America.

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