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As with any sensitive political event — as Australia Day has become — people’s emotions are heightened, they are less forgiving, and they have much higher expectations of brands, businesses and their leaders.
In a world where everyone is an armchair critic and expert, the risk of misunderstanding, judgement and outcry is far higher today than in the past. During this time, brands need to seriously up the ante across every key message they’re putting out.
Touching a raw nerve
Cinema Nova was recently forced to pull a National Australia Day Council ad that played before film screenings. The ad showed people from different backgrounds talking about European settlement and their views on what it means to be Australian. The Melbourne cinema received significant backlash on social media for playing what some customers deemed “propaganda”.
Twitter user, writer and Gunai and Gunditjmara woman Meriki Onus wrote: “I love coming to your cinema to switch off and watch a good film at a great venue. However, we were made uncomfortable by the Australia Day ads that you have screening. This is highly inappropriate for mob to have to pay to sit through. I hope you reconsider.”
The cinema responded in less than an hour to announce it would no longer screen the ad, tweeting back: “Our pre-film adverts are prepared by a 3rd party and provided to us for screening and, given reduced in-office hours presently, may not have been vetted with our usual care. We would never intentionally make our valued customers feel uncomfortable, so we will remove the associated propaganda from further sessions.”
The National Australia Day Council ad touched a nerve because viewers could see people who resembled themselves or people they know. It invited people to discuss and reflect on Australia Day with one another, but what right does an organisation or brand have to make me reflect on anything beyond nostalgia or inspiration unless I welcome or invite it? Especially if it isn’t going to make me feel good about myself.
Brands shouldn’t proactively bring up controversial topics without taking sides, or without offering something tangible that assists and furthers the conversation. If you know that a particular topic is weighed down by controversy, you must back that by providing a strong comment or action to back it up. The National Australia Day Council ad tried to have its cake and eat it too, which ultimately left both sides of the debate unhappy. It attempted to cover far too much in the space of one ad and would never leave viewers with enough of the satisfying emotional impact we have come to expect from advertising. By posing a question without providing any answers, it left far too much unsaid.
And for those who feel strongly about this issue, merely talking isn’t enough. Action is needed, and this ad feels like a lot of talk with no real action behind it. It’s the same half-hearted attempt at being ‘woke’ seen in many of today’s ‘girl power’ ads, or those that delicately reference Black Lives Matter without actually taking action.
This isn’t to say all brands should shy away from any attempt to jump on current events. Meat & Livestock Australia has become famous for its annual Australia Day lamb ads, turning them into a cultural talking point.
This year’s Australian lamb ad takes the mickey, pokes fun and touches on controversial topics, but it does so with humour, and in a way that doesn’t relate to any of us personally. The ad reflects on how 2020 was a pivotal time in Australia’s history when, for the first time, the country was physically distanced due to the pandemic. Set in the year 2031, the ad shows what might happen if state borders were shut for good, and a giant wall separated the once-united nation.
Despite referencing current events, including making fun of border closures, the ad puts distance between us and its characters by making them comedic caricatures. While you can identify with certain aspects of the ad’s characters, at no point do you feel like things get personal. The ad might make fun of Victorians’ bad weather and Sydneysiders’ obsession with coffee and clean sneakers, but it does so with a tongue-in-cheek attitude that makes us feel in on the joke, rather than the butt of the joke.
While it manages to maintain relevance thanks to the timely topics, the ad doesn’t force us to look at ourselves too firmly. I can consume that piece of marketing and feel that the ad isn’t written about me, and therefore doesn’t judge, criticise, or misunderstand me. The same can’t be said of the National Australia Day Council ad.
Perceived intent is a major part of whether a campaign is successful, and is especially important to get right when it comes to events such as Australia Day. If your campaign could be perceived as intended for commercial gain, then the organisation needs to consider the cost of controversy.
In 2015, Woolworths decided to commemorate 2015’s ANZAC Day by launching a campaign with the tagline ‘Fresh in our memories’ — the ‘fresh’ clearly aligned with its company slogan ‘The Fresh Food People’.
Even though the supermarket brand justified its campaign by saying it was an Australian heritage company marking its respect, the campaign was pulled before ANZAC Day due to social media backlash and questions about whether it complied with ANZAC guidelines in regard to the use of protected terms in its marketing.
Most would agree that the Woolworths ad was in poor taste, with the intent leaning towards promotion rather than commemoration considering the deliberate use of the word ‘fresh’. If it were truly just a commemoration, the supermarket brand would not have tried to link ANZAC Day to its own promotional agenda.
Alignment with your brand’s values
Another way a brand can alienate potential customers is if the news or event is out of alignment with the brand’s values. Tokenism or slacktivism never comes across well, even if it is well-meaning. Speaking out without the intention to make real change is simply noise, and puts brands at risk of justified criticism.
Consumers are not stupid — they can quickly determine if an organisation genuinely supports a cause or cares about a day of note. Not only will that affect their purchasing decisions, but they will also talk about it if it seems off — thanks to social media, the word can spread far and fast.
When linking news or events to your marketing, consider whether there is a strong and easily recognisable alignment between the cause, brand and campaign and if your organisation can demonstrate authenticity. Otherwise, your messaging will seem hollow.
The same is true with any supposedly ‘woke’ messaging your clients choose to engage in — you only need to look at the 2017 Kendall Jenner Pepsi controversy to see how very wrong this messaging can go.
Having said all that, some brands can get away with controversy, especially if ‘outrage publicity’ is their bread and butter. However, those brands walk a fine line. They need to consider whether the controversy will isolate or put off key target markets. If it gets people talking, shocks them or causes a backlash in people who were never their ideal customer, they might consider it an effective campaign.
However, suppose the controversy has a negative effect, particularly with key stakeholders such as suppliers, influencers, and potential and existing customers. In that case, those businesses need to ask if the collateral damage is worth the attention.
So, if you are planning on tying in your marketing efforts around Australia Day, ANZAC Day, or any other sensitive date, ask yourself: does this campaign promote the business above the cause, event or news? Is the overriding message to customers that this is for commercial gain? Will this campaign seem tokenistic rather than congruent with my business’ values?
If the answer is yes to any of those questions, stay well away. If the answer is no to all, then you might be in with a chance of success. But whatever you choose to do, tread carefully.