British American Tobacco removed a black artist from a campaign for its tobacco device Glo shortly before the campaign launched, in a move that appears to be connected to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The campaign by Geometry Ogilvy Japan, called 'Defy the Rules of Satisfaction', launched last week (June 24) across online channels and on a dedicated landing page.
The concept behind the campaign is all about 'challenging values' and perceptions. Here is the video that debuted last week:
The campaign features two artists, a 'geek' who has a passion for graffiti and a rapper. Each tells their story of how they have fought against stereotypes. But a source involved in the campaign has shared with Campaign Asia-Pacific that the original video featured a third character: a black calligraphy artist. This artist was removed from the campaign video and assets shortly before launch, according to the source.
Here is the original video, shared with Campaign, that features all three artists:
The black artist was a key element of the 'challenging values' concept. In another video shared by the source, the artist talks of challenging stereotypes about what it means to be Japanese.
“What is your passion?” the campaign poses (translated from Japanese), to which he responds: "Calligraphy. Each move of the pen has a meaning. And it conveys the passion to inkstick. Each letter means a lot more than what you see. My feeling, story…"
“What is your identity?” it goes on, to which he responds: "Keeping myself and my essence is my challenge. Also keeping my identity as a Japanese."
According to the source, all the wording in Glo's 'Defy the Rules' campaign concept referred to the black artist as 'gaijin' 外人 (translates to 'foreigner').
Campaign reached out to British American Tobacco and Geometry Ogilvy Japan to request information about why the artist did not feature in the final campaign launch video. A spokesperson from Geometry Ogilvy Japan said the content featuring the calligraphy artist is "currently in further testing to ensure it is portrayed in the best way to resonate with its intended audiences".
The spokesperson said: "The Defy the Rules of Satisfaction campaign tells the story of a number of individuals and aims to showcase those who challenge conventional assumptions and perception, in a positive way. As part of a phased campaign roll-out, we are releasing the content on an ongoing basis. The content featuring an artist who creates calligraphy is a core part of the campaign and is currently in further testing to ensure it is portrayed in the best way to resonate with its intended audiences. Our aim is to release the film in due course, and we remain in ongoing contact with all of the talent involved in the campaign."
Sharing a similar sentiment, a spokesperson from BAT Japan said: “The Defy the Rules of Satisfaction campaign for our tobacco heating product brand, glo, tells the story of unique individuals who challenge conventional assumptions and perceptions. This individual is one of a number of amazing artists who we have the privilege of working with, and we remain fully committed to continuing our exciting collaboration with him.”
According to the internal source, the last-minute cuts to the campaign video were facilitated by the agency's in-house team. The source said Geometry Ogilvy Japan requested the production company Cutters Studios Tokyo to remove the black artist from the campaign video, but they turned down the request. Campaign reached out to Cutters Studios Tokyo and they confirmed they did not make any changes to the original campaign video they submitted to the client.
It appears as though the decision was influenced by the current Black Lives Matter movement. According to the internal source, the campaign was conceptualised months ago. Filming had to be postponed due to COVID-19-related restrictions, but the shoot took place in early May. In the run up to the campaign launch date in late June, a last-minute decision was made to remove the black artist from the video.
Around the same time this decision was made, the Black Lives Matter movement was sweeping through the world, influenced by the killing of George Floyd in the US on May 25. Brands around the world were being—and continue to be—called out both for continuing to produce racist products and for failing to support the movement. It may be that British American Tobacco and Geometry Ogilvy Japan were concerned the portrayal of the 'gaijin' in the campaign would spark criticism. But removing the black artist entirely could undoubtedly be perceived as even worse.
This story was updated on July 1 to include BAT's official statement.