The advertising industry is worth billions; in 2019 alone, Statista estimates that the ads churning industry will exceed the USD 500 billion mark – and that’s a lot.
As with most things when it comes to who does what in Public Relations (PR), it is rather unclear whether the PR function is responsible for ads creation (not just placements / ad buying), or the Marketing function is. Most academics and practitioners from both sides of the practice spectrum seem to posit that adverts should be dealt with and handled by the Marketing departments – and that’s fine by me, to a certain extent.
If we are to solely guide ourselves by the definition given to it in Cambridge Dictionary, ‘advertising is the business of trying to persuade people to buy products or services’. And with anything related to ‘buying’, that should fall under the purview of Marketing, right?
Lately, after a series of very strange advertisements, some of which have a high brand damage potential, I’ve been starting to wonder whether it’s high time for PR to lead on and/or handle the corporate advertising aspects.
Coined by Williams (1921-1988) as ‘the official art of capitalist society’, it’s no wonder that ‘a TV commercial attempts to bedazzle, to instruct, to teach and to hold sway over the minds of consumers’ (O’Barr, 2005). And that is fine, too – after all, we are all consumers and live in a consumerist society.
The issue, from my perspective, starts when what is intended to ‘sway over the mind of the consumer’ and actually help them make that final purchase decision (good for the bottom line and Marketing’s ‘impact’ on it), damages or has the potential to damage not just a brand’s reputation, values etc. but, also, the legacy of that brand.
Let’s ‘gently’ dissect this recent ad example of Johnson’s Gentle range, a slightly different version of which caught my attention last weekend as it was aired on Channel 4 (19.05.2019):
The ad says that they ‘took out dyes, parabens, sulphates and phthalates’, going on to say that ‘Gentle [the new product range] means pure, Gentle means safe, Gentle means love’.
There’s nothing wrong with that ad at first sight, is there? But, if we are to look at it through the lens of reputation and issues management, some complex questions arise:
1. Have all the other Johnson’s Baby products which are not in the Gentle range contain ‘paraben, sulphates and phthalates’?
2. Are all the other Johnson’s Baby products unsafe and impure since only the Gentle range has been singled out as ‘safe’ and ‘pure’?
These are serious questions. Johnson & Johnson have been around for over 125 years and even I used some of their products (I bought a baby shampoo once for my dog, I admit). In our PR and Communications world, they are still attributed 1st place in the best handled crisis of all times (Tylenol crisis, 1982).
I’m not a chemist nor a medical doctor, nor an environmental activist or an investigative journalist – if I were, I’d probably go with a fine comb through the list of ingredients they claim to use for the baby products and, who knows, some may not come out as ‘pure’ and ‘safe’ as claimed or, even worse, products from the non-Gentle range may not either.
The lesson here – and I could certainly expand my ‘bad adverts’ list to include Nivea’s Skin Lightening Cream, Coca Cola’s New Zealand ad disaster and many others – is that a badly thought and untested ad can do significant harm to a brand’s reputation which, often, translates into a direct impact on the bottom line.
Perhaps it is time, particularly in the case of the brands who have got it so wrong, to involve their PR people in the final decision of pushing the ‘go ahead’ button of an ad being publicly broadcasted.
I would assume that the PR/Comms/Corporate Affairs Directors or Vice Presidents or whatever title they may have in these mammoth consumer brands are qualified and appropriately educated in Public Relations and Communication – therefore, they should be able to immediately question and risk-assess anything that has the potential to damage the brand, even more so when some brands, like in the cases mentioned above, are very likely to score an own goal.
The key here is ‘qualified’, not just ‘experienced’. To paraphrase Stephen Waddington (@wadds), time served is not an indicator of competence or ability; and to quote a very bad American head chef who tried to belittle Gordon Ramsey’s six Michelin stars by saying that his stars mean nothing other than ‘four tyres and two spares’, the same stands true of any qualified versus unqualified practitioner of either Marketing or PR.
And if there is a truly class act in the world of Marketing (and PR?) in 2018/2019, that has to be Iceland’s CEO – Richard Walker – who published a beautifully worded reply on the company’s website when one of our ‘communication’ peers accused Iceland’s Christmas 2018 campaign of having failed because it did not lead to an increase in sales!
That campaign, at least in my view, was superbly executed in terms of its desired impact – raising awareness of the damage palm oil plantations cause to species on the brink of extinction; it wasn’t just about buying non-palm oil products, or an X% increase in Iceland’s sales! It was about showing leadership as a brand and commitment for a just cause; it was what we call today ‘social purpose’.
Agree, not all brands can be like Iceland or Patagonia – and that’s fine. But, at least, all brands should be able not to shoot themselves in the foot with something that is their own creation: their adverts.