Scared of a backlash? It just means you’re pushing in the right direction

Not everyone will always like it, but addressing cultural tension with genuine creative tension is the only way to drive real change.

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Hands up if you’ve noticed some brands with a female-focused approach subtly move away from ‘empowerment’ towards more of an activist stance in recent months?

To me, the soft floppiness of fempowerment feels like it’s making way for a sharper, more consequential approach, and I’m all for it. Look at L’Oréal Paris, for example, which recently launched its ‘Never Your Fault’ work, the latest iteration of a four-year campaign against street harassment.

With zero hints of ‘Because You’re Worth It’ platitudes, it’s really refreshing. Instead, at the heart of the campaign is a bold suite of visuals dedicated to breaking down a barrier that prevents many women from ‘asserting their self-worth’: the fear of being catcalled or hounded in the street.

I love how the campaign has so many of the elements of what I believe make for authentic brand action in the space: independent research to underline the challenge (Ipsos), support for a third-party expert NGO (Right to Be) and tangible actions supporters can take (bystander training). And the issue is, of course, incredibly current.

What I think takes communications to the next level is a willingness to address a given cultural tension with genuine creative tension.

Another campaign that’s similar in its approach is one from my own agency CPB London. We’ve just partnered with legal campaigning non-profit Right to Equality and actress and activist Emily Atack to raise awareness of the UK’s outdated sexual offences laws, lobbying for the adoption of an Affirmative Consent model.

Like L’Oréal, we also undertook nationally representative research and are inviting people to take action by signing a petition. Our key finding? One in five Brits think ‘No’ can sometimes mean ‘Yes’ when it comes to sex.

I suppose the key difference to L’Oréal’s campaign, bar the obvious fact ours wasn’t brand-led, is the creative approach. By that, I mean L’Oréal has arguably taken a relatively safe route. This may be why, sadly, I don’t think there has been a lot of media coverage, something that would evidently have helped the campaign message to travel further.

Comfortable being uncomfortable

By contrast, the ‘I’m Asking for It’ campaign took a creative route that intentionally challenged the viewer, causing many to do a double-take.

Why did we and Right to Equality feel justified in taking that approach? Partly because with some of the team behind the campaign being survivors of sexual assault and male violence themselves, our position was informed. But also because rape conviction rates in the UK currently stand at less than 2% and the courts’ acceptance of ‘Implied Consent’ is one of the key causes of this shockingly low rate. It’s clear nothing less than an intentionally provocative campaign would draw people’s attention to such an acute yet shockingly ignored social problem.

Yes, we’ve had a bumpy ride and some backlash as a result of our creative approach. Some viewers didn’t just do a double-take, they tell us they actively flinched. That’s something that has deeply saddened us, given the nature of the subject at hand and it’s something we have to own.

However, on the whole, feedback has been positive. Many survivors have told us the campaign feels like a lifeline for them and media reporting has been balanced, culminating in a request to appear on Newsnight last Friday to debate the merits of the Affirmative Consent legal model.

Honestly, if you don’t experience backlash, then you’ve probably not pushed hard enough.

For me personally, the fact that within four days the campaign travelled far enough to reach the echelons of Newsnight and within five days had hit 10,000 petition signatures – meaning the government now has to give Right to Equality an official response to our demand for legal reform – ultimately validates the creative direction we took.

Interestingly, just two weeks prior to launching the campaign, I was in New York at the global Unstereotype Alliance meeting, the body convened by UN Women to collectively use the ad industry as a force for good to drive positive change all over the world. I had been invited to speak on a panel about how to brave backlash and how brands should power forward with collective action.

Talking with other panellists, what struck me most was just how much courage, specifically, is a defining characteristic of truly game-changing campaigns. Having an authentic voice, working with a legitimising expert partner and being in it for the long haul: these are all now table stakes for genuinely purposeful brands and agencies.

What I think takes communications to the next level is a willingness to address a given cultural tension with genuine creative tension, because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to truly cut through, particularly when it comes to deeply entrenched social issues.

Honestly, if you don’t experience backlash, then you’ve probably not pushed hard enough. This effectively means that if your brand is serious about taking a stance on a social or environmental issue, you should proactively set out to upset the applecart. The truth is that’s a deeply uncomfortable place for any marketer, indeed for almost any person. On the plus side, though, leaning in full force to an issue makes it incredibly hard for anyone to legitimately accuse you of woke-washing.

As brands and agencies step up to society’s challenge to use our reach, influence and creative firepower as a force for good in the world, we’re charting new territory. There are no hard and fast rules, and there is little guidance out there. But if you commit to bravery and partnership – and only ever act with intention – you’re on the right track.

The UK National Chapter of the Unstereotype Alliance is set to launch a new guide titled ‘Creative Bravery Beyond the Backlash’. The aim is to help brands and the broader marketing and creative community address the fear of backlash that industry insiders say is holding them back from being as progressive and inclusive in their marketing communications as they would like to be. Through a series of interviews with leading brands, equity, diversity and inclusion experts, talent and industry experts, the guide will shine a spotlight on the brands and agencies that have bravely pushed boundaries and lived to tell the tale.