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How Should Brands Navigate the Culture War?


When social, cultural and political discourse has become wildly and angrily polarised, many subjects seem too toxic for a brand to touch, but advertising experts from around the world suggest there are opportunities for brands to heal these divisions, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves

How Should Brands Navigate the Culture War?

“As a strategist from any discipline, it's hard to ignore the culture battlefield that seems to be raging on in the world today. The battle lines have been drawn on issues from cancel culture to identity politics, so it makes it impossible not to feel the impact of the conflicting currents going on around us right now.”

Like anyone in advertising keen to keep their clients relevant, Tim Walsh, UK head of strategy at Momentum Worldwide, understands why the most inflammatory debates in public discourse demand our attention. “But whilst to some it may feel uncomfortable – it’s not unprecedented,” he adds. “There is nothing new to cultural rivalry – however it’s become much sharper in the last 20 years thanks to declining trust in institutions that were meant to hold together society, some of the growing inequalities, and most of all the proliferation of technology that enables and indeed encourages people to cluster in their cultural groups.”

Some of those same factors have driven the majority of people to demand more ethical and equitable behaviour from brands and their advertising. Dr. Rodney Collins, EVP and director of McCann Worldgroup’s global intelligence unit Truth Central turns to the global research his unit has undertaken which points to a broad agreement for people in countries around the world: “People are invested in a more ethical and equitable future. They expect this to come from organisations and leaders of all types.” 

As the Truth Central’s latest study, ‘Truth About New Europe’ reveals, 75% of people across Europe would like brands and businesses to do more to bring people together. 90% believe business leaders should be as accountable to the public as political leaders. 81% would like to see more collaboration across the business ecosystem to help overcome collective challenges. And 73% of people tell us that they believe that brands have a responsibility to promote diversity. All of these are calls to action, Rodney asserts.

“People around the world have increased expectations that brands and businesses will not only fulfil their functional offering but also play a social, even a political, role - even in Europe where historically this hasn’t been as established as in the USA,” he says.. “It will be a real challenge for any brand to stand outside of culture, and by extension, politics if they want to succeed in culture. This is not about every brand becoming an activist organisation or endorsing political candidates (though those are certainly options); rather it’s about brands and businesses taking seriously what people tell us over and again when we ask them about their hopes, expectations, and fears. Taking seriously that to be part of culture means taking a stand in culture.”

But as the cultural battlefield continues to be churned up by vitriol on many of these discussions, playing a role in them can be a daunting prospect for advertisers. And this fear isn’t unfounded. We’ve repeatedly seen attempts at diverse representation and initiatives with good intentions get caught up in the culture war, whether advertisers mean to or not.

When the UK Institute for Practitioners in Advertising released its census figures early this year, right wing newspaper The Telegraph took the opportunity to frame the industry’s progress made on diversity as “overrepresentation” of women and ethnic minorities. The same article even took the opportunity to drag the output of British creative agencies into a culture war debate: “The figures come amid claims that a focus on ‘woke’ issues in advertising may be distancing consumers,” the story asserted. A cursory Google search reveals that it’s a topic The Telegraph has returned to frequently.

The nastiness of one culture war debate took a more personal and sinister form recently, when Innocean Australia staff received death threats on Australian industry publication Campaign Brief after an online group who claimed to be advocates for ‘men’s rights’ mobilised and took to the comment section. The vile comments came in response to something that might seem innocuous – the agency had created a campaign for anti-misogyny organisation Fck The Cupcakes, which asked men to ‘show up’ for International Women’s Day.

And even the biggest of brands can often get caught in the cultural crossfire unwittingly. LEGO came under fire recently after it announced a new line of figures meant to celebrate human diversity, displaying a wide array of traits you don't often see in mass-produced toys, including vitiligo, Down syndrome, anxiety disorder and limb differences. This provoked commentators on both sides of the Atlantic to accuse the toy company of pandering to a ‘woke’ agenda

“There’s no avoiding any of these ‘kitchen table’ issues,” says Megha Parikh, head of strategy at Wunderman Thompson Atlanta, noting that even the most seemingly inoffensive brands can find themselves the subject of cultural controversy. 

But all the strategists I speak to seem to be in agreement. Brands must engage with culture or risk looking out of touch with real people’s experiences. And that means they can’t ignore the dynamics of division, whether or not they overtly choose to make a stand on a given topic. “Ultimately, I remind myself that the core of our job, our main responsibility is to inspire bravery,” says Megha. “Whether brands acknowledge or engage with ‘culture war’ topics, they are happening. Some of that is internet garbage but there are real issues that American culture is sliding very backwards on (ahem: women’s’ rights, voting rights, gun access, declining educational standards and more.) There is no shortage of ways for brands to be meaningful and truly helpful – choosing the right issues, executed flawlessly, is of course the challenge.”

If brands can’t avoid the most hostile areas of discussion, then they’ll have to be prepared to engage with them positively. “These issues are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society and are likely to remain at the forefront of public discourse for some time to come,” says Tim. “As such, it's crucial for strategists to be aware of the different perspectives and opinions that are at play and to approach these issues with empathy and sensitivity. Whatever the approach – one thing is certain. Ignoring the culture war altogether is not an option. In fact, doing so may leave brands out of touch with the realities of their customers. Those that fail to recognise this risk being left behind and losing touch with their customer base.”

Siona Singletary, associate strategy director at R/GA Australia understands clients’ desire to avoid culture war debates. “Nevertheless, strategists absolutely must help brands navigate this landscape,” she says. “Brands are expected to take sides on contentious issues. This comes with a risk, they are only one badly worded Tweet away from that stance being misunderstood.”

“On the flip side, no response is a response. Ignoring the ‘culture war’ can be a missed opportunity to connect with consumers and more importantly to drive change, because brands hold power.” She points out that in Australia, similar to what McCann’s research has shown in Europe, 80% of consumers believe brands should use their power for real world impact. “Again there’s a risk, if they do not align their external communications with their internal values, it can very quickly be called out as virtue signalling,” she notes. But the reward is worth it.

One case from Australia to illustrate this is the MLA (Meat & Livestock Australia) ad of 2017, which was “criticised for forced diversity and trying to safety pin inclusivity on to a core objective to sell meat,” says Siona. This was the first year MLA stopped calling the January 26th Australia Day, to gesture progression. This year’s ad points out how ridiculous it is to call someone “un-Australian”.  Given that under 30% of Australians claim “Australian” as their singular line of ancestry, “MLA is slowly moving towards a better reflection of modern Australia,” she says. “But both ads are still divisive. Because being divisive attracts attention by challenging people’s realities.”

Rather than being intimidated by it, it is the role of strategists to think deeply about the culture war and find new ways to help brands navigate these seas, as opposed to avoiding them all together, suggests Tim. “Let’s not forget, tension is one of the most potent strategic fuels at our disposal. Without tension, our role is somewhat redundant. Insights lack impact, Provocations lack purpose – to change course, we usually have to overcome hurdles. It’s what makes the work, well…work! Culture is also both our richest source and destination for creativity. It is THE proof point that is so essential to the efficacy of both our work and the work of our clients. As sociologists James Davidson Hunter put it – a culture conflict is ‘a heightened awareness of culture itself and those who seek to shape it’. Sounds like a section from a strategist’s CV to me.”

The ad industry recently received a masterclass in navigating the stormy seas of public discourse. And it wasn’t from a do-gooder startup seeking to reflect the views of gen z. It was from M&M’s, the chocolatey American snack brand – pretty much as mass-market as a brand gets. In the lead-up to the Super Bowl, it seems like M&M’s trolled both sides of the culture war and came out on top.  

The sequence of events began when, as part of an effort to make the confectionary’s marketing more inclusive and unifying, the brown M&M ‘spokescandy’ stopped wearing stilettos and the green M&M swapped her boots for more practical footwear. This put the Mars Corporation’s brand in the crosshairs of Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s culture war discourse, when he bizarrely contended that “M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous,” suggesting that the change was trying to make candy no one would want to have a drink with, and once “you’re totally turned off, we’ve achieved equity.” Soon, the culture was caught up in a bizarre debate around the gender, sexuality and even sexual attractiveness of sugary snacks. 

Then in September, M&M’s introduced a purple M&M with her own theme song (‘I’m Just Gonna Be Me’ - read into that what you will) and sensible boots. Eventually Tucker Carlson took the bait, asserting that “woke M&M’s have returned,” adding that Green “is now a lesbian, maybe?” He also called Purple “obese.” The sound from Carlson’s segment went viral on TikTok and both sides of the culture war continued to weigh in on the footwear of a chocolate mascot. "Then, early this year, M&M’S did something no one saw coming. They announced they were responding to the backlash by putting the Spokescandies on hiatus. “Now we get it—even a candy’s shoes can be polarizing”, claimed the announcement. And almost every major media outlet believed it.

But at the Super Bowl this dramatic arc was resolved. Having provoked an incredible level of conversation and convincing the world that they’d been ‘cancelled’, the spokescandies announced their return to the limelight. Wired even declared that ‘M&M’s Are the Best Trolls on the Internet’. 

“We wanted to bring the fun back to a conversation that had gotten a bit charged—our campaign brought people together over a laugh so that we could all move on together,” says BBDO NY executive creative director, Peter Kain.

What the M&M’s campaign really managed to underline was how ‘culture war’ divisions are themselves often a media confection. Perhaps there’s something of the Emperor’s new clothes about the way populists, platforms and politicians leverage the illusion of division to create real division and distraction. Tess Bain, cultural analyst at Continuous asserts: “The 'culture war' is a media narrative used to create content that provokes a reaction. The issues that it touches on are real and important, but the framing is often reductive - it eliminates nuance and discussion. A lot of the time, it’s media reporting on media.”

Siona suggests that brands need to question whether there is a two-front war in the first place. “When I think of the ‘culture war’, I question its legitimacy as a societal issue. I see a divisive media mechanic at play. Why do two opposing perspectives have to be mutually exclusive? It’s a reductive binary.” 

There’s also the question of how much brands really should care about the vocal minorities at the extremes, who often dominate online discourse but are unrepresentative of the majority.. Which means that for even the least political of brands, entering these debates is less of a risk than it may feel. “To live and be successful as marketers, we can’t start from an inherently negative or cynical place,” says Megha. “There is so much proof that we’re all more alike and aligned than fractured at our roots. To survive as a strategist, I write every brief or strategy from a place rooted in positivity.”

Amy Travis, creative director at BBH USA approaches her work from a similar perspective: “The most vocal people in the room don’t speak for everyone, which means most people aren’t being heard. That’s why it’s so important for brands to make space for every voice in the room.”

While that can feel uncomfortable and risky, Amy points to the opportunities in that tension. “Having a more inclusive perspective gives brands the opportunity to start a new conversation, shape behaviours, drive action, and change culture for the better. If exposing a truth doesn’t hurt anyone and includes more of everyone, it can make a positive impact.”

That’s what her agency was recently able to do with the launch of a new book, ‘The Courage to be Truly Free’ in collaboration with a group of youth leaders at The Alliance for LGBTQ Youth in Miami. “With everything that’s been going on in Florida legislation over the past year, we saw the launch of [Florida governor and potential Republican presidential candidate] Ron DeSantis’ book as an opportunity to tell the other side of the story in an empowering way. If more brands can identify moments like this, when creativity and purpose can safely meet, they too can use creativity as a force for good.”

It's key to understand where people stand when it comes to culture conflict – and many strategists who make it their business to do so see that it depends a lot on their characteristics. Tim points to research that reveals that 52% of 16-24 year olds in the UK think the term ‘woke’ is a compliment, compared with just 13% of those aged 55 or over. “Might conflict be cool,” he asks. “For certain demographics at least, to stand for personal beliefs and challenge counter culture, is a liberating rite of passage.”

So to take a stand on issues that hold real relevance and meaning to their audiences could be wise for many brands. “This doesn't necessarily mean taking a political stance or engaging in partisan rhetoric, but rather understanding the values and beliefs that are important to their customers and finding ways to align with them,” says Tim.

Brand strategies need to grasp the reality of the challenges people face. “For a brand to be able to be authentic, it needs to remain true – not only to its purpose, but the space that it occupies within the minds of its audiences,” says Tess. “By the very nature of being true to its purpose, a brand can easily fall on one side or other of the 'culture war'. But it’s far more empathetic, and therefore far more effective, to stay away from the polarity of the 'culture war' and invest in really getting to know your audience, what they care about and what makes them tick. This should be the only benchmark you follow when deciding who or what to engage with.”

What makes people tick can sometimes be hard to face up to, but it's important to try, says Si Goodall, founder at The Ninety-Niners. "If you want your brand to be relevant to real people (and if you don’t, what the hell are doing!) it’s vital to understand the culture those people live it. And for nearly everyone reading this article, that means embracing different perspectives. If 2016 has taught us anything it is the need for empathy with those that have different views to us. So for instance, in 2022, it’s important to understand the forces that allowed Andrew Tate to capture the minds of so many young men, however abhorrent his misogynist bile might be. And while the structure of social media has a lot to answer for, we shouldn’t ignore the underlying structural truth that lots of young boys and men feel they don’t have a role in the modern world."

Rodney at Truth Central is a proponent of digging into the factors in people’s lives that might drive them to take stubborn or extreme stances on culture-war issues. His unit’s research delves into the nuance behind the debates. “The world is a pretty scary place at present and people around the world are struggling to plan for tomorrow given the extent of the uncertainty they face today. We invest much time and effort as a company in tracking the dynamics of contemporary culture – whether that is the experiences of self-identified minorities around the world or the middle class in America in pursuit of the American Dream. It is from the lived experiences of these people that we are building much empathetic and grounded strategies that respond to the challenges diverse populations face.” This awareness is best used by ad agencies to filter through commercial decisions, whether that is the type of story that is being championed, or the functional offer of convenience, value, and reliability, or in the opportunity to engineer some joy in the context of the divisiveness of contemporary culture. 

In other words, “find the nuance, not the normal,” says Tim. “A deeper understanding of passions and perspectives is key. Understand your tribe and go beyond demographics and tap into the cultural forces that shape attitudes.”

Some of these attitudes are emotionally driven and live on social media, propelled by, as Siona puts it, “keyboard warriors who choose gestures over action”. Social tech allows everyone to find their tribe. But these tribes are algorithmic and the number of tribes is vast. “Therefore culture cannot be reduced to a duality that sparks two-front wars. It’s a multiverse,” she says. “We are all in a constant state of negotiation around multiple aspects of ourselves. Especially when it comes to identity and culture, which is much more complex and bedded in deeper issues of belonging. Brands must be careful they are not tapping into or even creating more damaging social divides. That’s what being a ‘woke’ brand means, acknowledging the multiverse of culture and doing their best to give it space.” 

Strategists are often considered the philosophers of the ad industry, taking a measured stance and pondering forces acting on society in all their complexity. And that’s exactly the temperament that the vicious debates of the culture war demands. “As strategists, it’s our job to know what’s going on in the country, in the world and in the media. It’s our job, then, to know about the 'culture war',” says Tess. “But it’s also our job to think critically. Understand what’s authentic to your brand. Talk into what is relevant to your customers. Keep checking your moral compass. As a strategist, if you do that for a brand, you can’t go far wrong.”

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LBB Editorial, Tue, 28 Mar 2023 09:09:49 GMT