How much should we question the image we create for brands?
“Did you ever wish you were a boy?”
Well, I already was one. But I wanted to be Janet Champ, the copywriter who wrote that opening line in one of numerous awesome Nike ads.
The ‘90s brought a shift to Nike. While some of their ads were product-focused, the rest exhorted us to Just Do It — whatever “it” was: Be active. Pursue excellence. Get off our collective asses. Their advertising appealed across all sports and all segments of society — but very notably, young girls and women. They’ve championed female athletes and non-athletes for a long time.
Recently though, we learned those external calls to female empowerment masked an internal toxic bro culture at the company’s headquarters. An article in the New York Times laid out the scenario: Staff outings to strip clubs. Sexual harassment and gender discrimination. A dismissive HR department.
So do these revelations mean the Nike advertising was hypocritical all along? Are great ad campaigns still worth celebrating even when they don’t reflect a brand’s reality? Do agencies have any responsibility for ensuring their clients’ values truly reflect the image that’s portrayed in the marketing?
It appears Nike is taking steps to fix their internal culture, and will survive just fine. But Nike’s only one of many brands where the image created by advertising doesn’t always line up with reality.
A few years ago, some ad people suggested that Volkswagen’s heritage of great advertising was forever tarnished by the company’s diesel emissions scandal. Others suggested that the creative work could inoculate the VW brand against a backlash. The latter proved to be correct.
And for the last couple of years, Brawny paper towels has celebrated Women’s History Month by placing a Brawny woman on its packaging and sponsoring other female-focused initiatives. But Brawny is owned by Georgia-Pacific, which is in turn owned by Koch Industries. Yeah, those Koch Brothers. The ones who’ve spent billions of dollars supporting politicians and policies that arguably do more to hurt women than help them. Sounds a little incongruous to me even if Brawny’s marketing team has good intentions.
These types of issues only matter if you’re paying close attention. And perhaps that’s the one thing we can count on: Consumers, for all their supposed attraction to positive brand values that they express in opinion surveys, simply don’t care or aren’t paying close attention. Now in Nike’s case the story is a fairly new one reflecting the company’s internal actions, not those directed towards customers. So there may be adverse consequences or it all may pass in a blip. But like Volkswagen, Nike’s heritage of great advertising may be the get-out-of-brand-jail card the company needs to survive this latest controversy.
It takes an egregious act of wrongdoing on a brand’s part to stir some sort of consumer revolt — a boycott, some mad tweets — yet very little of it has a long-term impact. There are still people boycotting Hobby Lobby, Uber, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A for various reasons, but that’s not slowing any of these brands down.
On the other hand, some people who won’t watch Woody Allen films or anything starring Kevin Spacey. And Bill Cosby recently had his American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame status revoked. Perhaps brands weather controversies better than individuals.
So what responsibility do advertising professionals have in these matters, if any?
I believe we need to be extra cautious before hoisting any brand on the mantle of higher purpose. Too many brands fall short, and in many cases the ad agencies and marketing firms aren’t privy to all the issues that can befall a brand. If we believe we can tie any brand to any higher cause, it simply becomes a cynical messaging ploy that’ll eventually sap whatever trust and confidence consumers have in brands or the companies that control them.
Perhaps we’ve simply shifted the aspirational nature of our work — instead of showing shiny happy people who aspire to a better lifestyle, we’re showing shiny happy companies who aspire to do good even if it’s unattainable. No corporation is going to have a perfect track record that mirrors the purpose-driven images and messaging that advertising and marketing creates for it.
Consumer trust and loyalty, if there truly is any, is hard to attain and easy to lose. So every brand needs to do what it can to ensure its actions match its messages. And those of us who create the message need to ask the tough questions of brands that want to claim a higher purpose.
Or maybe it’s just me questioning whether this could lead the ad industry into more troublesome territory. That’s OK. But I plan to continue just doing it.
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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