Are brands growing a conscience or using social issues to increase profits?
A new breed of advertisements sees companies seeking to create a discussion about something other than the products they're selling
A little girl sits in front of a mirror. Her mother stands behind her fixing her hair. "Who said that?" is the first bit of dialogue we hear. "The lady at the store," answers the girl, to which her mother responds: "That is not a compliment."
Later on in the advert, we hear that the girl was told that she's pretty for a black girl. "You are beautiful. Period. Don't ever forget that," says her mother in the final scene. Between these framing moments are other vignettes in which black mothers warn their children that the world may not treat them as it does others.
"You can do anything they can," says a mother dropping her child at school. "The difference is that you're gonna have to work twice as hard and be twice as smart."
The advert in question is called The Talk. The client is Proctor & Gamble (P&G). The tagline is My Black is Beautiful, and the brief was "to find ways for P&G to authentically connect with African-American consumers and use its advertising voice for good and growth".
WATCH | Proctor & Gamble's ad 'The Talk'
The commercial was one of the big winners at last year's Cannes Lions Festival, scoring the Film Grand Prix for ad agency BBDO New York. It was created by copywriter Nedal Ahmed, who is one of the star judges invited to this year's Loeries in Durban in August. Ahmed, a senior copywriter at 72andSunny in Amsterdam, is jury president in the film and radio category.
When The Talk first aired in the US it was met with controversy. Some viewers loved the way the ad started a dialogue about racism and shared the experience that black people have endured for decades.
But others felt the advert divides the audience into "us" and "them".
"One consumer called P&G and shouted at a customer representative about race-baiting," says Teneshia Jackson, founder, of the Egami Group, a communications agency that specialises in purpose branding.
"Some iteration of The Talk is tied to being black anywhere in the world, even in Africa," says Ahmed. "But being an African immigrant to the US, where an interaction with the police can be a matter of life or death, this dialogue suddenly has higher stakes and becomes even more of a necessity."
Damon Jones, vice-president of global communications at P&G, says: "Brands have the power and the responsibility to be the courageous change we want and need in the world."
But Michelle Malkin, an Asian-American blogger and newspaper columnist, criticised what she referred to as "P&G's identity-politics pandering."
She says: "P&G should stand for quality consumer goods, not empty Protest & Grumble that divides more than it unites. If P&G isn't willing to tackle the full complexity of race relations in 21st-century America, perhaps the company should stick to selling diapers instead of filling them."
About reaction to the advert, Ahmed says: "I expected it. There's a fraction of people who are never going to want conversations about race to be brought up. They see it as stirring the pot and creating problems instead of a chance to have a dialogue. Some people even started petitions to boycott P&G, but overall, I would say that it was positive. A lot of people's eyes were open and a lot of people felt affirmed."
You don't have to be Karl Marx to know that companies are driven by profit, not social conscience - but is advertising "with a purpose" an attempt at something approaching ethical or is it just plain opportunistic - leaning on your conscience for brand endorsement, a phenomenon that's become known as "woke-washing"?
Gillette, a P&G product, dived headfirst into this territory with its "toxic masculinity" advert, replacing its famous slogan "The best a man can get", with "The best men can be".
WATCH | Gillette's 'The Best Men Can Be' advert
TV presenter Piers Morgan called the advert "absurd virtue-signalling PC guff", but others praised the company for moving with the times. Gillette followed it up with its "transgender" ad — titled First shave, the story of Samson — which features a transgender man getting tips on shaving from his father. It was mostly praised.
Branding and advertising expert Andy Rice said: "Generally speaking the purpose of advertising is to incrementally change people's attitudes to a particular brand in a predefined direction, changing the makeup of the brand in people's heads and hearts.
"Authenticity is one of the great attributes of great brands. If you're not adhering to the principle that a promise made has to be a promise kept then your brand loses credibility. The consumer is no fool.
"[Advertising bigwig] David Ogilvy once said, 'the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife'. While that may be politically ill-phrased in the modern world, the principle still applies."
Rice said he considered last year's Carling Black Label campaign against domestic violence to be one of the best examples of a positive brand message.
"The women singing at the Carling Cup was the most moving thing I've seen in a long time," he said.
Alarmed by the recent statistics of violence against women (a woman in SA is murdered, on average, every four hours, and half of them are killed by their partner or spouse), leaders of the African arm of global beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB Inbev) and South African Breweries wanted to address the problem. Their #NoExcuse campaign reached more than 45-million people worldwide, and was awarded a bronze Loerie award.
Donné Wolk, marketing manager at Carling Black Label, says instead of deflecting blame, the beer company decided to take responsibility for the role beer plays in gender-based violence.
The climax of the campaign was when a group of women performed a rendition of Mas'hambe Nono during the Soweto Derby when Kaizer Chiefs took on Orlando Pirates in March last year.
Halfway through the song, the lyrics were adapted to highlight the violence South African women experience.
WATCH | Carling Black Label's #NoExcuse ad
"Some people took the campaign cynically, saying that cigarette and alcohol companies have to be seen to be doing good," says Rice, adding: "When brands extend to new target markets, flinging their doors wide open for the newcomers, their die-hard loyalists may be fleeing out the back door."
Ahmed considered this when she produced The Talk.
"You have to be OK with the alienation," she said.
"As a brand you have to decide that it's a worthwhile risk, short and long term. There are people who are going to be upset by work that addresses issues like gender and race and I think it's fair to question brands and their motives, but it's also fair to examine why these issues make those people so uncomfortable.
"A friend told me that he'd shown The Talk to his partner, who is white, so that she could get a glimpse of what it might be like to be in their daughter's shoes as she grows up. Overall it's a positive when we can put something out there that makes an impact and starts a dialogue."
• The Loeries awards take place in Durban from August 19-25. Visit loeries.com