Is marketing activism the beginning of the end of the advertising agency? - Showtime Digital

Is marketing activism the beginning of the end of the advertising agency?

22 July 2019 Read 4628 times

Does the current trend of Adtivism (corporate activism through virtue signalling) have similarities to reality TV’s contribution to the decline of free to air TV?

That’s my observation and we’re going to explore this in more detail regardless of the haters.

Back in the day

Reality TV held our attention for a season but within the decade free to air had started to implode as consumers looked elsewhere to find other forms of ‘reality’. If Smartphones and streaming services like Netflix had arrived sooner the decay would have been even faster.

Back in the early 2000’s the networks were licking their lips. It was cheap, trashy and created gossip around the water cooler at work the next day. They didn’t need to pay for talent because there was none, as hordes of suburban wannabe’s lined up to get their 15 minutes of fame.

What disappointed me more is not the hordes but the fact they all believed they need to seek the networks approval. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash would never have got to the stage.

Nearly two decades after the first reality show the marketing landscape has changed to digital and social media. It would be fair to say the advertising industry has grappled with relevance given the demise of traditional media. So, to get some perspective let’s go back a decade.

Remember when advertising was creative?

Remember the Old Spice Ad ‘The man your man could smell like’? It hit our screens in February 2010 and went…should I say it? Viral (cringe).


Image1 –Isaiah Mustafa in Old Spice campaign (2010)

Ask yourself this. How much of an uproar would ‘The man your man could smell like’ create today?

Unfortunately, in 2019, the ad would be deemed misogynistic.

Today Isaiah Mustafa may identify as a 14-foot Chinese female, enter the Olympic Games and win 3x Gold medals in women’s weightlifting and pick up the ‘Woman of the Year’ Award. 

If this was a movie plot from 2009 it would be an Adam Sandler comedy. In 2019 it could be a documentary.

How far we’ve come in a decade

In 2019, nearly a decade after the Old Spice classic, Gillette got on a high horse of its own to tell its consumer base how toxic men had all become.



Image2 – Gillette, ‘The best a man can be’.

Note the video’s dislikes far outweigh the likes. That’s Gillette’s core consumer base who now buy razors from Schick and Dollar Shave Club.

Nike and Diet Coke

More recently Nike created a sneaker with the Betsy Ross flag incorporated into the design and because Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL player and political activist, took offence to it, they cancelled the sneaker release.

This was the same flag used at Barack Obama’s inauguration. I wonder where Mr Kaepernick was then?


Image3 ‘The Betsy Ross’

In June 2019 Diet Coke launched the Unlabelled’ campaign – ‘We’re removing our labels to start a conversation about yours’.

It’s a collection of stories of people who weren’t happy with the label’s others gave them, so they choose different labels.

(Image4) – Diet Coke, Unlabelled - Meet Brendon

It confounds me that we find identity through outward expressions like labels at all. Isn’t it the content of our character which matters?

It’s these labels which advertising agencies are jumping on. But why is the open politicisation of marketing more prevalent today and how did we get here?

Did we misinterpret Simon Sinek’s - What’s your why?

In September 2009, (Around the same time as the Old Spice Ad) Simon Sinek told us to ‘Start with Why’. But did we misunderstand what he meant by finding it?

I remember clearly after the video’s release; crisis meetings were held in boardrooms everywhere.

Corporate responsibility now meant political correctness. In a flurry, companies opened their check books to charities in the belief the millennial audience would approve of their $400 charitable contribution (is this tax exempt?) and buy their product.

In their excitement they shouted their modesty from the rooftops.

But it wasn’t only the big end of town, even blue-collar trades jumped on the band wagon. Overnight companies changed their name from ‘AAAAAAAABuilding Company’ (Yellow Pages optimised) to the ‘Green Building Company’. It made all the difference.

To complete their transformation, they built an $800 website to inform their clientele how environmentally friendly they had all become.

Image5 – Carbon neutral work vehicle

Like weeds, email footers sprouted up everywhere. ‘Please consider the environment before printing’ and ‘We’re a paper free office’. Environmental one-upmanship’s were tossed around so often you could have had made a salad out of it by lunch and included a liberal sprinkling of superiority.

Identity politics – Purchasing the tribe

Recently we’ve seen corporates moving to identity politics and buying tribes through virtue signalling. 

Identity politics comes in two forms, ‘common humanity’ which is inclusive and considers the majority (eg. Martin Luther King) and there is ‘common enemy’ politics. The latter is based on yelling the loudest and creating hate and division. There are any number of bullies with a multitude of causes prepared to drive a wedge in society.

There’s Globalist or Nationalist, left wing or right wing, Socialist, Marxist and Capitalist, male or female, black or white, young or old, straight or gay, the list goes on into the ridiculous.

For the most part companies prefer to choose liberal progressive causes. The challenge with this is their strength of voice belies their size. To illustrate this there may be no more divided country in 2019 than the USA (Image5).

Below we see the huge divide which has formed over the last decade between the Democrats and Republicans. There is no centre in US politics today. Even more troublesome for brands utilising adtivism is the diminishing sand dune of extreme left Democrats as opposed to the mountain of Republicans.

Image5 – Division in US politics 1980 – 2018.

If you’re going to virtue signal you better pick a winner. The groups which brands tend to focus on are younger, idealistic and push the boundaries of societal norms. Their views are often based on fairness and equality, focusing on what divides us rather than those virtues which unite us.

The narrowcast view of so many people today is often based on an algorithm served to them by the social media platforms they frequent. With this limited perspective they can be blinded by their idealism, intolerant of other viewpoints and heavily vocal on social media.

Live by the sword, die by the sword

The challenge with Adtivism is you must choose sides and you must realise the tribe or label you’ve chosen comes to the detriment of another larger, more united tribe.

Unlike reality TV product placement or sponsoring a charity, with adtivism you are at your tribe’s mercy.

The foundation of Adtivism is hate and division.

The tribe won’t ask permission when they attack, or when devastation occurs. Neither will they ask permission as groupthink takes over.

In the crowd’s drunken rage, no man’s land is defined (am I even allowed to use the pronoun) and a wall is built from which the tribe attacks and defends, (ironic as walls are immoral).

The illogical tribe demands everyone have an opinion to choose a side, you are either for us or against us and the silent apolitical majority becomes the enemy by default. The brand is now caught in a storm beyond its control.

Virtue signalling works best when you have an enemy

Now the brand has its tribe in a yelling match on social media and its momentum is sustained with little effort as everyone is triggered by the minutest comment online. There’s an insult for every occasion even the one’s we scratch our heads about.

Advertising agencies know tribe psychology very well. They understand the power of virtue signalling, that it appeals to group identity and how it motivates your tribe to battle.

It enables the brand and the individual to take the moral high ground, to show their superiority and self-righteousness at the expense of others.

Division and hate aren’t brand virtues

Adtivism sits on a bedrock of hate (or maybe a sand dune as we’ve seen). There is no truth in hate, just raw feelings and our feelings are often based on lies. This being the case there is little or no brand truth in adtivism and promoting division and hate is not a value any brand should see as a virtue.

Wasn’t big business the enemy?

The point we have all missed is a decade ago big business was evil. After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis protests were held because the people bailed out the banks. In 2011 people across the political spectrum were involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests and Anonymous put corporate America on notice.

In 2019 those same people have now turned on each other. And who’s fuelling the flames? The social media platforms, unelected officials and local government as well as big business and advertising agencies.

In early 2019 Chase bank closed the accounts of conservative clients. Visa are denying accounts to conservatives and YouTube are demonitising conservative channels.

It’s scary to realise if you simply think differently you can lose access to your ability to buy and sell (where have I heard that before?).

Today the enemy is no longer the corporate world but your neighbour. It’s as evil as it is excellent in its execution and corporates see the political left and their trumpets, the social media platforms, as the means to ride that tide and magnify their brand.

The decline of the advertising agency

Advertising agencies are happy to accommodate brands in taking the moral high ground.

And why wouldn’t they. The brand looks good on their CV, it breaks through the online noise and builds consumer loyalty.

But let’s be honest, companies exist only to make profit, the very thing their tribe despised about them only a decade ago.

While some companies may sincerely have a Why which is in line with their consumer base, by virtue signalling, companies may also wave the flag but not believe in the cause.

Brands, much like politicians, prefer to chose winners and if your tribe’s not winning you desert them and find another tribe. That’s business.

But what if the cause is not a company value and it’s just a campaign? What if the Board changes their mind, or they fall on tough times, will they leave the tribe to fend for themselves? Will the tribe eventually turn on them? Time will tell.

Like Reality TV, virtue signalling is lazy. You could argue it’s creative but like a parasite attaching itself to a host the relationship is flawed on many levels. What virtue signalling does well, both in the short term and in limited numbers, is break through the noise.

When you do break through the noise you become the noise, and that’s all this is about. If only for a season.

Steve Palmer

Steve Palmer is the Joint Founder and CEO of Showtime Digital. Steve has been in B2B sales since 1997 but influencing people and behavioural science has been a long-term passion.

The magic he brings to his clients is in knowing how to engage their audience. His goal is to help businesses understand the deeper reasons of why consumers convert online with them.