Is ‘right on’ stance wrong for brands?

Tapping into public feeling is the job of marketers, but is joining political causes – like the anti-war campaign – just cynical opportunism? asks David Benady

When anti-war protesters took to the streets on Saturday February 15, their appearance marked the biggest demonstration in Britain ever – attracting up to 2 million people. And naturally enough, when there is a massive upsurge in public feeling, you can bet your last petrodollar that someone from the world of marketing and advertising will be watching out for branding opportunities.

Among the march’s homemade placards, one banner caught the attention of the national media. “Make Tea, Not War”, it read and featured a picture of Prime Minister Tony Blair holding a sub-machine gun and wearing an upturned teacup on his head. The banner was not just a one-off affair hammered together in some anarchist’s back garden, but a mass-produced and professionally executed work. Someone had flooded the demo with the poster.

What may have escaped the attention of the national media was the other word written across the placard. Karmarama, it said, which was recognisable to those in the know as the name of one of London’s trendiest advertising agencies, run by former St Luke’s creative director, and later creative chief at Channel 4, Dave Buonaguidi. Karmarama has produced ads for brand giants such as Campbell Soups, Ikea, Selfridges and the NFL Superbowl.

So was this just an opportunity to ride on the back of a heart-felt protest in order to garner publicity for the agency? “It is not that cynical,” says Buonaguidi. “People assume that people in advertising do everything to shout about it. We just thought it would be good to do something. I don’t think a lot of other companies want to get involved, but it would have been interesting for larger companies to say it is a stupid idea to go to war.” So why plaster the Karmarama name all over the banner?

That, argues Buonaguidi, is all about standing up for what you believe in and not being afraid to put your name to it.

The charge of opportunism could equally be levelled at the Daily Mirror, which has thrown its weight behind the anti-war campaign, knowing that its arch-rival The Sun will take the opposite tack. A spokesman for the tabloid says: “The Daily Mirror’s support of the rally was a natural continuation of an editorial line we’ve been pursuing for months. Our anti-war position has captured the mood of the nation and shown us at our compelling, campaigning best.”

But while taking a stance on war is well within editor Piers Morgan’s brief, the rush of celebrities from the B-list and below to put their names to the campaign smacks of “radical chic”. This was a typically Sixties phenomenon where upmarket folk backed radical causes to leach onto alternative lifestyles and assuage their upper class guilt. Lampooned by journalist Tom Wolfe in his book of the same name, radical chic has never really gone away, with pop stars and celebrities always eager to associate themselves with worthy causes.

Brands have also jumped on the “radical” bandwagon, as oil giant BP’s short-lived conversion to green policies shows. And the recent decision by the Barclay Brothers, the new owners of Littlewoods stores, to drop the chain’s commitment to the Ethical Trading Initiative reveals how alignment to worthy causes is seen in business as an optional extra.

Brands are queuing up to portray themselves as radical as they seek to expand “corporate citizenship” and depict themselves as concerned and caring. The enforced wackiness of Red Nose Day will be upon us again in mid-March, and the fundraisers’ website includes “a massive thank you” to their “fantastic corporate sponsors” from the past such as Mr Kipling and Flora – who take the opportunity to shamelessly publicise their brands on the site – as well as Pringles and official Red Nose Day T-shirt seller Littlewoods.

Two days before the anti-war march, another piece of arguably self-serving ethical marketing appeared from the maestros of the art, Benetton. The sweater merchants has launched a global advertising campaign in association with the World Food Programme highlighting the hunger that is stalking many parts of the world, and which will become much worse in the advent of a war in Iraq. The ads show photographs of people from around the world suffering hunger.

While the company is keen to talk about its ââ¬15m (£10m) spend on the campaign, it declines to say how much of its own profits it donates to the worthy causes that appear in its ads. Benetton’s PR chief Frederico Sartor says: “I don’t see it as cynicism, this is a win/win situation. We give value to the brand, and the WFP puts the issue of hunger on the international agenda. It is fighting an important battle against the worst humanitarian disaster you can have, and nobody is speaking about this. The year 2003 will be an annus horribilis for hunger.”

If the anti-war demo really did represent a step change in the public consciousness, brands will be watching to see how they can exploit the new mood to enhance their images. Their motives may be suspicious, but their support is usually welcomed by campaigners against hunger, social injustice or exploitation of workers in developing countries. But, as with wealthy Park Avenue liberals who adopted radical chic in the Sixties, it is doubtful whether the commitment of most brands to worthy causes is more than skin deep.

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