When I was a child in Africa someone once said to me: “Be careful. Too much cola will rot your teeth and make you fat.” Obesity is now a preoccupation of the government. And accordingly to Downing Street’s “son of the manse”, the real cause of obesity is not the sin of drinking cola, nor the product itself, nor the retailers who sell it – but advertising.
Politicians don’t encourage debate about exercise and the availability of sport in schools. They don’t try to treat voters as humans with free wills, but as sheep who need to be herded. And behind advertising is marketing and the marketer, presented as some sort of swashbuckling privateer, determined to lead us into obesity.
The single solution on offer to our politicians appears to be to ban advertising, or relegate advertising for “offending products” to some form of late night ad watershed. It’s a solution that completely ignores the piles of sugary foods and drink beside the checkouts in shops, usually offered at severely discounted “not to be missed prices”. It also ignores the influence of other media. Just look at the way the new generation are able to access without fuss things like American internet wireless radio stations. While our young are online, they pick up rap-talking ads extolling the latest colas available at Wal-Mart. Our nanny state politicians can do nothing to control that.
Marketing must find a voice that gets our blind political leaders to see. Our profession must find a way of getting a reasoned and balanced discussion going. Not to do so simply allows advertising to be seized on as an easy whipping boy for cheap-trick politicians.
If we can demonstrate that marketing can aid a cause for good, this would do much to help a wider appreciation of the value of marketing.
Surely the essence of marketing is highlighting meaningful differences for one’s product or service? One way of doing this is to form an attachment to a cause associated with the disadvantaged.
For instance, there is certainly an opportunity for large brands to partner up with major causes in a focused and strategic way, which would help make a real difference to both interests. If brands are not to be seen as simply logos, they must be acknowledged as helping to change lives.
We all see many examples in which good marketing for good causes produces positive results way above their marketing costs. Isn’t marketing ultimately a driver of democracy? People choosing freely to pay or to give of their own free will? Consider the impact of fairtrade-type products. And the recent (Red) initiatives.
The suspicion is that some of these are just tactical promotions or public relations-led responses to company crises. If these were strategic, they might highlight on their labels the pay per hour that the worker gets. A T-shirt might bear the words: “Made from 100% cotton. Workers paid £8 per hour.”
Annual reports might be made to depict two thermometers, one showing profits made, and the other contributions to charity generated. It would certainly give a perspective on the scale of both and the differences between them.
A propos cola, a more strategic approach to brand partnerships here might try to balance the occasional enjoyment of the fizzy drink by associating it with a higher benefit than one’s own immediate consumption.
Consider how a cola brand that formed a partnership with a charity committed to providing access to clean drinking water for people in Africa could enhance its image. Such activity would mean marketing found it much easier to garner respect among those who seek to attack it.
A real partnership could surely deliver clean water and great cola. Just imagine: “Water to live. Cola to enjoy.” That really would see the world singing in perfect harmony.
Raoul Pinnell is governor of the History of Advertising Trust. He was previously chairman of Shell Brands International