Oh Christ, Dave! Look what you’ve done. You sexist fucker.
When the story of Hannah and Dave first aired a week ago, there must have been high hopes at Crown Paints, the brand behind the campaign, that it was onto a winner.
This was a strong attempt to move up the benefit ladder and deliver an emotional brand message positioned around the personal stories behind painting. There was a relatively big budget. Plenty of prime time TV. And a really rather splendid creative idea involving a modern-day (and very diverse) Greek chorus dressed in the colour of the ad, standing on the brushes, telling the stories behind the paint.
But you already know what happened next. One of the three stories, Hannah and Dave painting their nursery, sparked a social media outcry and nearly 300 complaints to the ASA.
What begins as a standard slice-of-life ad veers a couple of times during its 60-second narrative. First, when we learn that Hannah, who had explicitly decided never to have children, suddenly changed her mind and was now gagging for them. Then, a few seconds later, when our Greek chorus tells us that Hannah is hoping for a girl while Dave – fucking Dave – is just hoping the baby is his. Zoom out to the titular duo painting their nursery mustard yellow, shot of logo, strap fades in, and we are out…
Almost immediately, a small but significant sample of people took to social media to shake their digital heads, and question the whole premise of Hannah and Dave and what they had just seen. The irony of Crown Paints’ newly minted hashtags – #notjustpaint and #itspersonal – was only just becoming apparent.
For many commentators, there was the sizeable issue of a woman who had decided not to have children suddenly and emotionally changing her mind “out of the blue” because, well, you know, women don’t really know what they want and they are emotional creatures at the end of the day. But by far the bigger issue was Dave’s apparent lack of confidence and trust in his partner, and the suggestion that Hannah was sleeping around and cheating on him.
Before we get too carried away with the criticism, however, we might want to pause and consider the size of this negative response. Two-hundred-plus complaints is notable but hardly a landslide. And while the social media criticism got a lot of play across mass media, it was relatively sporadic and garnered only a few dozen likes and comments. For an ad seen by millions, it was hardly a huge reaction.
One of the (many) problems of social media is that it overrepresents those who are outraged and underrepresents the silent majority so underwhelmed or slightly entertained that they don’t feel the need to proclaim it. “This ad is mildly interesting and did not insult or upset me in any way” is a tweet you rarely see. And it never makes it into the Daily Mail.
So, was the ad sexist? Or a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of modern, imperfect relationships?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes, and yes, and everything in between. The posh word for this is polysemy. For a text to be polysemic it has to offer multiple, often contradictory, interpretations to different members of the audience.
Most texts are polysemic. Ever since the Old Testament, we’ve been aware that meaning is not inherent in the pages of a book, but rather created in the synapses of the reader’s brain as they encounter and interpret it. Different readers, with different interpretive baggage, will see entirely different meanings in the exact same text. And, problematically, they will usually believe that meaning to be inherent and universal, despite the fallacy of that perception.
If you were a woman who had explicitly decided not to have kids, you’ve probably got to the bit where Hannah changed her mind by throwing herself onto her man and took instant, understandable offence. If you were a man (or woman) who had ever been cheated on by a partner, you probably sympathised with Dave and his paternal anxiety. If you were a six-months-pregnant couple, you probably disliked the mustard yellow and started debating what colour your nursery will be.
And if you were a marketing columnist already aware of the growing criticism, you watched with the assumption that the ad was innocent and its accusers overstating their case. And then you watched it again, because the ad did strike an odd tone, even to an ancient dinosaur like you, and then you emailed a friend. More on that later.
While all texts are potentially polysemic, advertising is probably the most polysemic of the lot. It’s short. It’s partially watched. It has zero back-story for its characters and close to zero plot development for them during their seconds-long story. And it aims to attract and engage as big an audience as possible in any practical way.
Roll all that up into a little semiotic parcel and you have the ultimate in meaning refraction. And to a great degree, agencies and clients need not care. You think the lead character is gay because you are? Great, buy the shirt. You imagine the women in the suit is a lawyer? Wonderful, look at what she feeds her super-healthy cat – what a lovely lawyer.
When something like this comes along and ignites a small, short but significant debate, it will eventually add to Crown Paints’ sales figures.
Usually, the only way to settle a polysemic argument is to uncover authorial intent. Only Hitchcock can tell you if Norman Bates really thinks he is his own mother. In this case, Crown Paints has been super-quick to defuse all criticism, not by denying it, but patiently explaining there was no intent to communicate any of the shitty stuff that viewers hated.
A shout-out here to Crown Paints’ social media manager. They’ve spent the last three years playing solitaire, copy/pasting the same six responses about opening hours and colour palettes and complimenting Gary on the use of Lavender Cupcake in his master bedroom. Then, one day, they switch on their monitor and find themselves at the epicentre of a maelstrom of gender identity, cancel culture and misogyny.
But in the case of advertising, even authorial intention does not completely clear things up. The client and the agency might assume their ad portrays a strong female character and a healthy, realistic relationship. But what if their conceptions of these roles are skewed?
It’s dismaying to report that the ‘Hannah and Dave’ ad was made by an all-male team at Wilmslow-based agency, Driven. Male planner. All-male creative team. Male director.
I’m not saying there was any intended misogyny on the part of any of these advertising professionals. I’m saying that, when you get an exclusively male team together to represent modern social roles that include women, we normally fuck it up. Not because we are evil, or old-fashioned, or wankers, but because diversity is not just a state of mind, it’s a population statistic.
If there had been one – let’s go totally fucking mental and suggest two – women on the Crown Paints job, then one of them might have picked up on the uneasy aspects of the story, and shuffled over to the director during the tea break and had a quiet word.
The subsequent reaction to the ad and the surrounding media coverage have certainly propelled the ad into a higher level of salience than it would otherwise have achieved.
We are fortunate in the world of advertising, however, because we have access to an extra level of analysis that remains largely unavailable to those working on texts from higher cultural sources. In film studies, experts continue to argue whether meaning comes from the audience, the director, the screenwriter or a mix of them all. In advertising we know the answer exists in only one location: the target consumer. We have market research and the inarguable logic of the market to provide the ultimate interpretation.
So that phone call was to my mate Jon Evans, who is the CCO at System1. I know Jon. I don’t value Jon’s opinion. I don’t not value it either. That’s not the reason I rang him. I rang him because I know System1 tracks pretty much every British ad, in real time, with elegant analytics and a representative sample. Jon therefore knows – literally knows – whether the ad was sexist or not.
Want to know the truth?
One of the many ways that System1 slices and dices an ad is looking at the emotional response of consumers as they experience an ad. Clients can watch their ads playing out on one screen while monitoring the emotional response of the audience on the other.
Down the bottom of the screen, you can see the light-green colour of happiness, as many viewers instantly recognise and respond to the ad, others join them as the storyline unfolds, and the delightful Greek chorus sings its tale. But above the green there is a worrying and almost immediate splash of dark red. Other viewers also recognised the ad and had an instant contempt for it. Something had irked them. When the ad drops the line about Dave worrying if the baby is his, the level of contempt increases and it is joined by disgust and anger from other viewers presumably new to the ad.
The top three associations for the ad are ‘paint’, ‘painting’ and ‘Crown’. No surprise. But 15% of the audience associate ‘irritation’ with the ad – an unusually high outcome and almost the same proportion as those who associate the ad with ‘happiness’.
The data suggests that the modal emotional response to the ad was nothing; that it was a very average ad for the category it occupies. “Modest” is the System1 summary of the ad’s overall impact. It rated 84th out of 143 ads for household goods.
It was, however, very good at one thing most brands are bad at – fluency – it connected the ad to the brand in the mind of the target customer. Most people knew it was a Crown Paints ad. That might not sound much but, when most ads leave no trace of the brand in the mind of the consumer, it’s a proper achievement.
It does not quite end there. There is one more wall to paint. The subsequent reaction to the ad and the surrounding media coverage have certainly propelled the ad into a higher level of salience than it would otherwise have achieved. You’re reading a sentence now that would not exist if the blowback had not been blown. There is – the incorrect statement goes – no such thing as bad publicity. Of course, that is cliched horseshit; there is such a thing, it’s just very rare and incredibly hard to achieve. But not impossible.
For the most part, though, any reaction – even if it’s largely negative – will prove to be ultimately positive for an ad and then the brand behind it. Most ads are forgotten a second after they end. The only place where brands occupy a significant amount of cognitive space is in the brains of the marketing team. No one else gives a fuck. Given the renewed importance of salience and system 1 thinking in the world of effectiveness, it should be apparent why even negative public responses usually have positive implications.
When something like this comes along and ignites a small, short but significant debate, it will eventually add to Crown Paints’ sales figures. Sure, a handful of people have tweeted their intent to boycott the brand. But they won’t. And the proportion of sleeping customers who don’t even know they need paint yet but now think about Crown somewhere deep in their reptile brain has just been tweaked upwards by a few points.
Not because of the ad. Or Hannah and Dave. But because of the complaints about the ad. And the story they read about those complaints last night on the way home.
It’s amazing what a 60-second ad can tell you, isn’t it? A story of paint and painting, of relationships, of families, of women who want kids, and women who don’t, of all-male creative teams, of polysemy, of ad tracking, and the effect that a response to an ad can have on that ad’s ultimate impact. Like they say, it’s not just paint. It’s personal.