Foong Li Mei
May 29, 2017

Activism and ads: a messy marriage

Brands are starting to take on a bigger social role, but not all are adept at negotiating the required sensitivities.

Wide awake: Tata Tea’s latest ‘Jaago re [wake up]’ campaign urges Indian consumers to take action on contentious social issues before tragedy strikes.
Wide awake: Tata Tea’s latest ‘Jaago re [wake up]’ campaign urges Indian consumers to take action on contentious social issues before tragedy strikes.

Pepsi could have paid closer attention to the anthem it picked for its commercial last month. “This generation/ You better know who we are,” sings Skip Marley in his song Lions, as a cello player is shown drinking from a can of Pepsi before joining a demonstration.

Viewers found this protest-themed spot harder to swallow. Whether it was the use of ‘white privilege’ poster-child Kendall Jenner to invoke iconic imageries from the Black Lives Matter movement, or that the rally the spot featured was so vaguely themed that the protesters may as well have waved candy floss instead of schmaltzy placards, Pepsi succeeded in showing that it does not know the generation it is trying to sell to — many of them politicised millennials with a heightened sense for the exploitation of justice movements, who can shoot down a multimillion dollar ad with just a touch of their phones.

But this same political awareness that Pepsi so resoundingly failed to tap into is in fact opening up opportunities for brands to stay relevant. As young consumers grow more socially conscious, the race is on for brands to get off the fence and become a voice they want to listen to.

In Asia, India is leading the pack. Brands here are open to adopting sociopolitical themes, with Tata Tea producing one of the boldest brand-backed campaigns the region has seen. The latest ad for India’s biggest packaged tea brand, ‘Alarm bajne se pehle jaago re [wake up before the alarm rings]’, launched in February and called for ‘pre-activism’ to prevent tragedy instead of reacting once it has happened.

“Instead of ‘bold’, I actually prefer the word ‘honest’, and to some extent, ‘hard-hitting’,” Sushant Dash, regional president in India of Tata Tea, tells Campaign in good humour. Hard-hitting it is: the spot features images of rape, farmers committing suicide and bridge-collapse — all of which are tender topics in India — and it marks the reboot of Tata Tea’s ‘Jaago re [wake up]’ campaign, which has been addressing hot-button issues such as corruption and voting since 2008.

The ‘Jaago re’ campaign had a business decision at its core: Tata Tea was seeking to consolidate media spending for its sub-brands under a social awakening theme that cut across pop-strata. According to Dash, the campaign’s frankness has struck a chord among a population charged with passion, even anger, for social issues. Tata Tea’s figures show that, at the time of writing, the ‘Jaago re’ reboot had achieved 1.15 billion impressions across digital platforms in the first three months since it went live. The TV spots and digital video recorded 67 million views with a completion rate of 29.8 percent — significantly higher than the benchmark of 17 percent to 22 percent.

Navigating sensitivities

A socially-driven population with underlying structural issues — India seems to have all the ingredients for intense flavours in brand campaigns. According to Philip Hwang, brand strategy director of Brandimage, a democratic nation with vibrant discourse as part of the fabric is a necessary backdrop for brand activism to thrive.

“When a society is seen as doing well, there is less of a role for brands to voice an activist message,” he explains. “While India has grown robustly, there are still a lot of inequalities to address, with a well-informed population eager to discuss the issues. This is where a brand can find a suitable voice to move in and play that role.”

But this does mean brands are parachuting into a jungle of raw nerves — especially overgrown in Asia with its many multicultural sensitivities.

Rainbow’s roar: HSBC stuck to its convictions when religious conservatives railed at this LGBT-friendly message.

Mullen Lintas is one agency that has trodden on the wrong toes. Despite a track record that includes working on the well-received ‘Jaago re’ campaign, its ad for electrical appliances brand Havells last year in India was less celebrated. During one scene, a girl rejected a form marked “quota”, apparently intending to apply for university admission based on merit. Havells ended up pulling the TV spot and issuing an apology, following backlash when critics interpreted this as an anti-reservation message — a subject of fierce debate in India.

“We accept that we got the topic wrong and the depiction was open to interpretation,” says Amer Jaleel, chairman and CCO of Mullen Lintas. “Rightly, perhaps, we suffered. We proposed to say nothing pro or against reservation.”

Then, there are brands that think they are singing to the beat of the zeitgeist but are actually tone-deaf — a description often applied to the maligned Pepsi ad. An example closer to home is Absolut Vodka’s advert in South Korea last December. Featuring street protesters holding candles to form the shape of a distiller’s bottle, the brand came under fire for riding on anti-government struggles for commercial gain.

Some ads deserve the face-palm even more blatantly, such as the cartoon poster in 2014 by Indian mattress brand Kurl-On, which depicted young activist Malala Yousafzai getting shot in the face then tumbling down towards a mattress to sell its ‘Bounce back’ tagline.

Yet less extreme messages, even in the more open Asian markets, are also not insulated from heat. Religious groups called for the boycott of McDonald’s Taiwan following its ad last year that showed a father accepting his homosexual son. And by installing a pair of colourful lions outside its headquarters in Hong Kong, HSBC also lost some support from family groups accusing it of threatening traditional values with an LGBT-friendly stance.

Honesty is the best policy

It is common for Asian brands to take on a sociopolitical angle and then withdraw their ad following backlash. But HSBC refused to back down, reasoning that the lion statues symbolise the bank’s commitment to diversity.

Unlikely though it might seem, such backbone actually seems to raise the likelihood of controversies turning into wins. “Whether a brand can withstand and reap the rewards of controversy comes down to a single key — authenticity,” says Hwang. “Standing by a value enshrined in corporate identity — in this case diversity — allows a brand to be more confident and clear in action. If you are clear about who you are and what you’re trying to achieve, you’re better positioned to spark meaningful conversations and be seen as pioneers.”


Questions Indian mums avoid (2017)
Brand: Tata Tea
Country: India

Released on International Women’s Day, this TVC features young girls asking their mothers difficult questions such as ‘Why does grandma not want you to work after marriage?’ to spark debate on female dilemmas.

Main pankha hu (2016)
Brand: Havells
Country: India

This 52-second ad depicts young Indians confidently challenging political malpractices, corruption and inequality.

Breathe again (2015)
Brand: Xiao Zhu
Country: China

China’s haze-clogged air can be a touchy topic for heavy industrial zones, but Xiao Zhu decided to call out the culprits by projecting stock images of children crying and choking onto the smoke plumes these factories emitted. The campaign won seven Lions at Cannes that year.

Love all kinds of love (2015)
Brand: Bench
Country: Philippines

This LGBT-themed billboard ad garnered controversy when it appeared with the hands of the featured male couple being obscured. Thinking that the ad had been vandalised, fans were incensed. But Bench later clarified that the concealed hands were the ‘approved version’ in compliance with the governing body, Ad Standards Council.

Beyond feel-good taglines, brands have to show they walk the talk, backing up what they say with action. And it can be a long journey: when Tata Tea encouraged citizens to fulfil their democratic duties during the 2009 general elections, it collaborated with a local NGO to register voters in the top 35 cities of India, both via online platforms and on-the-ground events, over a period of five years.

To Hwang, authenticity is the biggest challenge of cause-marketing because consumers are mindful that whatever brands do, the endgame is to get into their wallets. Take the many LGBT-themed ads — is it a coincidence that the message of inclusivity concerns a lucrative consumer segment?

In Asia, the LGBT population is roughly 270 million, but their spending power per annum as a whole is pegged at US$1.1 trillion, according to LGBT Capital. A huge chunk (42 percent) of the spending comes from China.

LGBT couples are coveted by brands for their DINK (double-income, no kids) status. But being LGBT-friendly appeals to inclusive-minded heterosexuals as well, according to Paul Thompson, founder of LGBT Capital. Success all comes down to whether brands can convince consumers that they truly care about this sector — rather than simply paying it lip-service. 

Downhill ride

Both Hwang and Jaleel are seeing more appetite among brands for cause-marketing. But most are playing it safe with relatively non-controversial, social-good messaging, such as female empowerment or child hygiene.

Few brands, Hwang says, want or need to fish at the deeper end for divisive political topics, and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Raw nerves: Absolut Vodka misjudged the political mood in Korea (left); a coming-out tale by McDonald’s won over liberals but enraged religious groups in Taiwan (middle); querying quotas didn’t play well for Havells in India (right).

“It’s important to remember that the tensions in Asia are quite different from the West,” he explains. “P&G’s calls for men to share the housework load and SKII’s campaign to empower ‘leftover women’ [those still unmarried after the age of 25] might seem passé to Western eyes, but that doesn’t mean that these topics are any less relevant and powerful in Asia.”

Jaleel, on the other hand, believes that it is time for brands to get off the bandwagon, because audiences are starting to tune out.

“A lot of [the social ads] I see around me these days are force-fitted and not really springing from brand truth. We are almost at the peak of the amount of social-good marketing that people can take,” Jaleel says. He adds that the more evolved audiences are already suspicious of brands exploiting social issues for sales.

To adapt Skip Marley’s lyrics: you’d better know who the politicised generation is — they may have a short attention span, but they watch closely whoever gets in their line of sight.

Campaign Asia

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