The dangers of paying lip service

15 July 2020 | 5 min read | News
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

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Article originally written for Marketing Gazette magazine.

There’s a saying that floats around from time to time that does my head in more than anything: ‘All PR is good PR’. I think the person who said that first must have been in the news left, right and centre for the bad things they were doing and attempted to justify it. 

In today’s virtual age, it’s hard to hide communication mistakes (or plain stupidity) and yet, more and more businesses are at the forefront of our newsfeeds for repeated offenses, especially in the creative, marketing and advertising industries. And the past few weeks have been no exception in fact, I would argue we’ve seen an influx of negative press surrounding brands that just don’t know when to stop talking.  

Of course, the past few months have witnessed some of the worst racial injustices in America, starting with the brutal murder of George Floyd. Understandably, the people of the US, and the rest of the world, said enough is enough and mass protests broke out internationally in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  

The power of the people has always been underestimated but this movement has begun a wave of change unlike anything we’ve seen for a long time. However, the influence of international brands and businesses have at times like this is immense and can be a real catalyst in kick starting and continuing change.  

Nike and Adidas, McDonalds, Yorkshire Tea, Ben and Jerry’s and Lego – just a handful of brands who have used and continue to use their podiums of power for the greater good. Whether through donations, campaigns that stand in solidarity of the movement or shutting down racists on their platforms; it’s more than just lip service, it’s quantifiable and life-changing action for the BAME communities around the world.  

Of course, while I wish it wasn’t the case, it seems for every good campaign you’ll find one or two simply awful ones. Ones where you think, f**k me – what imbecile thought ‘yes, this extremely racially loaded advert is a great idea’ or ‘we’ll make a jumper that resembles blackface’.  

L’Oreal, Volkswagen, Bristol Dry Gin; three examples of brands that shouldn’t have said anything. A recent study from WE Worldwide found that over half (54 per cent) of consumers want the brands they support to balance great product with powerful purpose and activism but, activism can only be seen as powerful if it doesn’t contain hypocrisy or sheer ignorance.  

But in 2020, a supposedly forward-thinking and innovative time, why are we still seeing racist ads or backwards campaigns, have we not learnt anything from our previous generational mistakes? I would say it’s because of two reasons:  

Lack of diversity, still 

Across the advertising sphere, only 14 per cent of employees are from a BAME background and more generally, only 4.7 per cent hold C-Suite executive level roles. I just feel that if we worked harder to create a more equally diverse workforce in all industries, we’d see the dissipation of racist campaigns because there would be voices to stand up against those who are unable to, or choose not to, see what horrors they are producing.  

Brands using their podiums because they can, not because they should 

Lip service is inauthentic; if you have to say you’re genuine or authentic then chances are, you aren’t. Qualities such as authenticity come from what isn’t said, and this is relevant to all issues such as BAME oppression, LGBTQ+ prejudice or gender inequality.  

Using L’Oreal as an example here, the hair care brand was founded in 1909 and now, the company’s owner has a net worth of £58.6bn. However, despite all the success, in 2017 the brand fired trans model Munroe Bergdorf for speaking out against racial prejudice. Then in 2020, they oh-so conveniently speak out in support of Black Lives Matter. I’m not sure who told them to do that, but it was hugely misjudged. As I mentioned, social media leaves no stone unturned, and Bergdorf was the first to highlight the complete and utter abhorrence of their ‘solidarity’.  

It’s a prime example of a time where a brand would have been better of saying nothing at all. Instead of publicly announcing its ‘support’, L’Oreal could have quietly donated or made changes internally to battle inequality, but because of one badly timed piece of lip service, the whole company’s authenticity is being questioned by potentially all of its customers. 

Instead of relying on the ‘All PR is good PR’, I think many brands need to step back and practice the saying ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all’.