Wednesday 23 October 2019

Michael Cullen: 'Activist advertising must practice what it preaches or risk damage'


Brave is better: Guinness’s new campaign does not shy away from the perils of alcohol abuse
Brave is better: Guinness’s new campaign does not shy away from the perils of alcohol abuse

Media & Marketing with Michael Cullen

Controversy can boost revenue but brand activism isn't for everyone and must be handled with care. Nike ads captured the zeitgeist with American footballer Colin Kaepernick urging consumers to "believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything". Conversely, Pepsi's ad with protester Kendall Jenner handing a policeman a can of cola fell flat.

Nike, whose slogan is 'Just Do It', saw sales soar while Pepsi had its own consumer unrest to contend with as it tried to limit the damage done to the brand.

At an Association of Advertisers in Ireland (AAI) Toolkit seminar, Hammer & Tongs duo Paudge Donaghy and Trista Vincent spoke about brand activism with a talk entitled 'Yo Propagandhi'.

Benetton caused upset with its ad showing a priest and a nun kissing. The brand followed with a series of other provocative images, including a black woman breastfeeding a white infant and Death Row convicts.

But Benetton's photographer Oliviero Toscani overstepped the mark with an ad showing a dying Aids sufferer being comforted by his grieving parents.

Unilever joined the activism 'brand-wagon' with Dove 'Real Beauty' in 2004. While the campaign has had its detractors, it replaced the made-up models in ads in favour of the 'woman-next-door' look.

Donaghy and Vincent aren't big fans of the new Gillette ad. It risks alienating men. All the while, P&G charges sky-high prices for Gillette women's razors.

Donaghy points to four forces feeding brand activism - tech, waning trust in institutions, the rise of the political consumer and belief in digital as a panacea.

State Street made a song-and-dance about the Fearless Girl statue near New York's Wall Street. But the hype came back to haunt State Street as reports came out about how the company treats its female staff.

It is a sign that advertisers should bring activism in-house and build it around brand purpose. Don't preach unless your pulpit is squeaky clean. If you're going to embrace activism, you need to walk the walk. If there's one Hammer & Tongs' conclusion above all, it's be brave. Diageo is showing it with Guinness 'Clear' (pictured) - a drinks brand confronting the perils of alcohol.


Interesting to see Tesco signing up as a sponsor of this year's St Patrick's Festival. The British multiple has been outplayed in the Irish stakes by Aldi and Lidl in recent years as the German discounters developed close ties with the GAA and Irish rugby. Both grocery brands make a big deal of sourcing Irish beef and fresh produce in ad campaigns.

SuperValu has earned huge kudos from its Tidy Towns sponsorship while Centra replaced RTÉ Sport in 2010 in backing the GAA national hurling championships. During the five-day St Patrick's Festival, Tesco's Irish culture programme revolves around heritage, traditions, music and food, including events at a new three-day festival village in Dublin's Merrion Square.

Newstalk business presenter Vincent Wall is fronting a new weekly series of 10 videos advising would-be Irish entrepreneurs on how to go about beginning a start-up. Colin Culliton, founder of The Printed Image and John Moore of 3d4 Medical fame came up with the idea.

Called Primed4Business, the not-for-profit initiative has interviews with Freshly Chopped's Brian Lee, Beats Medical's Ciara Clancy, and Avoca's Simon Pratt. New episodes will be released each week between now and early April.


The EU's new GDPR data regulations may be proving to be environmental friendly. A study by Jet Global business reporting and analytics claims that 360 tonnes of CO2 is saved every day by sending fewer marketing emails - which is around the same impact as a full flight from Dublin to New York. Since last May, the number of marketing emails has dropped by 1.2bn daily.

And finally... Nigel Heneghan is to be honoured by the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) as they bestow upon him the PRII's highest honour - a life fellowship. An event will be held soon at which institute members will salute the PR doyen and Fine Gael activist.

Michael Cullen is editor of;

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