Embracing Backlash: A Sign of Progress in the Making

Embracing Backlash: A Sign of Progress in the Making

Embrace the discomfort as a catalyst for growth. Facing cultural tension with authentic creative endeavors paves the path for substantial transformation and innovation.

change direction

change direction

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Have you noticed some brands shifting from a female-focused approach focused on 'empowerment' to a more activist stance lately? The softer approach of fempowerment seems to be giving way to a more impactful approach, and I'm here for it. Take L’Oréal Paris, for example, which recently introduced its 'Never Your Fault' campaign, the latest phase of a four-year effort against street harassment.

The campaign is a breath of fresh air, steering clear of the typical 'Because You're Worth It' clichés. Instead, it focuses on empowering women by addressing a common barrier to self-worth: the fear of catcalling or harassment on the street.

I appreciate how the campaign incorporates key elements of authentic brand action, such as conducting independent research (Ipsos), collaborating with a respected NGO (Right to Be), and offering tangible ways for supporters to get involved, like bystander training. Additionally, the issue it tackles is extremely relevant in today's society.

I believe that taking communications to the next level involves addressing cultural tensions with genuine creative ideas.

A similar campaign that follows this approach is one created by my agency, CPB London. We recently collaborated with the legal campaigning non-profit Right to Equality and actress Emily Atack to bring attention to the outdated sexual offences laws in the UK. Our goal is to advocate for the adoption of an Affirmative Consent model.

We conducted nationally representative research just like L’Oréal and are encouraging people to sign a petition. Our main discovery? One out of every five Brits believe that ‘No’ can sometimes be interpreted as ‘Yes’ in sexual situations.

The main distinction from L’Oréal’s campaign, besides the fact that ours was not led by a brand, lies in our creative strategy. L’Oréal has chosen a more conventional path, which may explain the limited media coverage our campaign has received. More media attention could have definitely helped spread our campaign message 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.

We and Right to Equality felt justified in taking that approach for a few reasons. Some of the team members behind the campaign have personal experiences with sexual assault and male violence, which informed our position. Additionally, rape conviction rates in the UK are currently less than 2%, with the courts' acceptance of 'Implied Consent' being a major factor. This shockingly low rate called for an intentionally provocative campaign to bring attention to this often ignored social problem.

Despite facing some backlash and a bumpy ride due to our creative approach, we stand by our decision. Some viewers were taken aback and even flinched at our campaign. It's disheartening to see this reaction, especially considering the sensitive nature of the issue. We take responsibility for any discomfort caused and understand the importance of our message.

Overall, feedback on the campaign has been mostly positive. Survivors have expressed that the campaign serves as a lifeline for them, and media coverage has been fair. As a result, we were invited to discuss the benefits of the Affirmative Consent legal model on Newsnight last Friday.

It's true that if you don't face any backlash, it likely means you haven't pushed hard enough.

Personally, I feel proud that our campaign gained attention from Newsnight within just four days and reached 10,000 petition signatures in five days. This means the government must now respond officially to our call for legal reform, which shows that our creative approach was successful.

Interestingly, I had attended a global meeting of the Unstereotype Alliance in New York just two weeks before launching the campaign. The alliance, led by UN Women, aims to use the advertising industry to drive positive change worldwide. I was invited to speak on a panel about facing backlash and how brands can take collective action to make a difference.

In conversations with other panelists, I was most impressed by the importance of courage in truly impactful campaigns. It is essential for brands and agencies to have an authentic voice, collaborate with experts, and commit to long-term goals to make a real difference.

What I believe elevates communication strategies is the willingness to address cultural tensions with creative solutions. This approach is crucial for breaking through and making a meaningful impact, especially when dealing with complex social issues.

If you haven’t faced any criticism, it means you may not have pushed hard enough. This suggests that if your brand wants to take a stand on a social or environmental issue, you should be prepared to shake things up. It can be uncomfortable for marketers or anyone else, but fully embracing an issue can help prevent accusations of woke-washing.

As brands and agencies respond to the call to use our influence for good, we are entering uncharted territory. There are no strict rules or clear guidelines, but if you are brave, collaborate with others, and always act with purpose, you are heading in the right direction.

The UK National Chapter of the Unstereotype Alliance is preparing to launch a new guide called 'Creative Bravery Beyond the Backlash'. The purpose of this guide is to assist brands and the wider marketing and creative community in overcoming their fear of backlash, which is seen as a barrier to being more progressive and inclusive in their marketing efforts. The guide will feature interviews with leading brands, diversity and inclusion experts, as well as industry professionals, highlighting the stories of brands and agencies that have courageously pushed boundaries and succeeded.

Editor's P/S:

The article highlights the shift in brand communication from a focus on female empowerment to a more activist stance. Brands are recognizing the importance of addressing social issues and using their platforms to drive change. L'Oréal Paris' "Never Your Fault" campaign and CPB London's "I'm Asking for It" campaign are examples of this approach, tackling street harassment and outdated sexual offense laws respectively.

The article emphasizes the need for authenticity, collaboration, and long-term commitment in impactful campaigns. It also acknowledges the potential for backlash and the importance of facing discomfort to truly make a difference. The Unstereotype Alliance's upcoming guide on "Creative Bravery Beyond the Backlash" provides further guidance for brands and agencies to overcome their fear of criticism and embrace more progressive and inclusive marketing efforts. from influential platforms like Newsnight further validates the power of such approaches in driving social progress.