More controversy might be helpful—if it doesn’t kill us
If you follow the media—social, traditional, mainstream, or otherwise—then you probably see a constant stream of brands, organizations, and shows being boycotted or attempts being made to boycott them.
I can think of a bunch of recent boycott targets very easily: The Rush Limbaugh Show. Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Chick-fil-A. TLC’s “All-American Muslim.” Starbucks. Huggies. That’s only for starters.
I’m not here to debate the merits of each particular case. But in general, do boycotts work? Can we, as advertisers and agencies, control how effective the boycotts are? And is it appropriate to target advertisers to get to the shows they advertise on?
Some of the recent examples were unusual: Huggies was the target of some fathers who protested a “Have Dad Put Huggies to the Test” campaign that insinuated some dads neglected their babies while doing other things like watching TV. And Starbucks found itself the object of a boycott by the National Organization for Marriage for the company’s support of same-sex marriage—only to have the boycotters outnumbered by Starbucks supporters in online petitions.
Seeing a constant barrage of boycotts, those of us who work in advertising need to be prepared. Because there are a lot of gray areas.
First, consumers aren’t always consistent in what brands they boycott, or how vigorously they boycott those brands. Like a lot of people from the South, I grew up on Chick-fil-A. My body composition is 3% Waffle Fries. But I’m also not a supporter of the causes they contribute to. Still, it’s disheartening for me to see the opposition and boycotts of their stores based on their support for some organizations. Because I’m a fan. Call it hypocrisy or selectivity, consumers might give some brands a pass for something where other brands get targeted. And marketers can’t control when those occur.
Secondly, if we want to embrace the idea of “having a two-way dialogue with customers,” boycotts will be part of it. We’re going to hear what consumers think, loud and clear, whether we like it or not. On the other hand, it’s now amazingly easy for customers to express their indignation—once the ball gets rolling on social media, the information, misinformation and disinformation can provoke a disproportionate response.
Third, we have to deal with our brands being the means for consumers to boycott something else. Advertisers (and by extension, their creative and media agencies) are in the crosshairs, sometimes unknowingly, like in the recent attempt to get Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors to stop advertising on his show. Some advertisers truly don’t know, down to the individual spot, where and when their commercials run. Or it may not be commonly known to all the employees of the business. But a quick response plan needs to be in place, or else the situation can easily escalate out of control.
Fourth, more transparency won’t help, since it rarely exists. Consumers will never fully know about companies and the causes those companies support. And unless consumers are willing to investigate every company they do business with, and that company’s political contributions, charity donations, and in-kind support for organizations, they’ll act on only the information that’s widely publicly known, which often isn’t much.
Hardly a week goes by that some group of consumers isn’t worked up over something. We need to get used to each complaint, each protest, and each boycott as having at least some legitimacy. One single complaint could be the catalyst for a larger boycott attempt. Brands can stand their ground, or cave in. There’s no singularly correct answer.
No brand managers, CMOs, or CEOs want to spend valuable time dealing with boycotts or mad consumers. Most executives have more important things they’d rather be doing. So it’s no wonder that brands tend to avoid controversy in their advertising. And ad agencies are stuck playing it safe, or playing defense, as a result.
But maybe brands ought to stir up some controversy. Boycotts may be a new sign of effectiveness—a new twist on the idea that “you’re nobody until somebody hates you.” Some consumers will defend a brand against a boycott, as in Starbucks’ case. And then, a brand might find out who its loyal fans really are.
Should we aim for work that's so provocative it gets boycotted? Should businesses live on the edge of pissing people off? Or is it simply too easy for consumers to make noise about something they don’t like, and not worth the risk?
One thing’s for certain: As long as we don’t boycott provocative work, or taking opinionated, controversial stands (and encouraging our clients to do so), we’re in for more consumer boycotts. And that might be the best thing to happen to advertising in a long time.
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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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