A clash of cultures: Twitter cancels Burger King.

A lot has been made of Burger King’s recent ad titled “Women Belong in the Kitchen.” If you’ve heard about it, you’ve likely already taken sides and are either itching to rage-tweet me, or are eager to hear someone else who supports your point of view.  Instead of taking sides, let’s be objective and unpack this thing one step at a time.

For anyone who doesn’t know, or didn’t read past the headline, Burger King was announcing the establishment of a new scholarship called H.E.R. (Helping Equalize Restaurants) to aid aspiring female employees who want to pursue careers as Chefs. The timing of its release coincided with International Women’s Day. 

Here’s the ad that ran as a full page in The New York Times:

First, let’s clarify what the ad was meant to do.  And we can do so by remembering what ALL ads are meant to do: get your attention. And this headline, while controversial if it stood alone, does that very well, because it’s dangerous. Because it’s a trope. Advertising leverages drama because it leads the reader to a destination that’s equal parts entertaining and attention-getting. And because a headline that reads “Burger King launches new scholarship to aid female representation in restaurant kitchens” is neither.  That sort of thing is for a press release, not an advert.

From a craft point of view, this is a strong headline, in that it serves to do at least one job that all good headlines should perform: it summarizes the content that follows. If we’re being objective, (and we agreed that we would be,) this is a very good all-copy ad-nouncement.

Now, let’s look at where it went wrong: in a word, Twitter. When the brand (and the agency behind it,) wanted to extend this exciting conversation online, it took to Twitter and Burger King’s 1.9 million followers with the initial tweet. Which, sadly, was just the headline. It then tweeted a summary of the content that follows in the ad. [Important note: the tweets were initially “debated” on @BurgerKingUK.] While Burger King did clarify the headline tweet in subsequent posts, it was apparently the string of ugly comments in the conversation thread that got out of control. The entire thread has since been deleted, and an apology was issued by global CMO Fernando Machado.

Ad culture meets Twitter culture and fails.  Cancel culture meets Burger King and shuts it down. This whole thing has gotten off the rails, and I think it’s mostly because people are not taking anything beyond face value. I would argue that we need a context culture more than anything else these days.  An army of fact checkers and industry experts who could act as docents for a whole generation of people who seem to crave being offended, and who magically find a fix on social media at roughly the rate of every news cycle.

The ad, the subsequent Twitterstorm, and the media kerfuffle that followed it have become new facets in the cultural touchstone that is today’s cancel-happy culture. The sad part is, it’s a pretty good ad. And Burger King, as a restaurant chain, (whether we should call them a “restaurant” or not is a different subject altogether,) is trying in earnest to do a darn good thing in the face of an inequality on which they are wholly qualified to comment. It’s a shame that we’re dealing with this level of bullshit from a minority of wokesters when a brand decides to put its money into something that might actually help in a concrete way what is, in this case, a marginalized segment of the population.

Now let’s look at what’s REALLY wrong with this ad: the typesetting is insulting, and should be cancelled immediately! The face is what it is – Burger King’s going for the retro-hip thing with the old bubble letters logo. Fine. I’ll concede that for the sake of the old-is-new branding mission.

But lord, where is the copyfitting? When the creative director was reviewing this, didn’t he or she think, “hmmm…that’s a weird place for a hyphen?” In the middle of the name of your new scholarship, in the middle of what’s arguably the most important word (Equalize,) you couldn’t break the line differently? And then again, in the last line of the ad, in another important word (kitchen) we couldn’t hard kern a little bit?

After a week of debating the merits of this approach, I haven’t heard any ad geeks talking about this.  Why? If we’re being objective, there’s probably a conspiracy afoot.

The brand cure for coronavirus: advertising.

The weeks and months leading up to and following March 2020 will go down in history as an incredibly important and impactful time period in the history of the United States. Between the COVID-19 pandemic itself, the economic ramifications of a roller coaster stock market, and the drastic measures being taken at the federal, state, and local levels, nothing seems normal. Virtually all major sports shut down. All major gatherings shut down. Schools closed for mandatory periods of time. Bars and restaurants closing. Social distancing. Self-quarantining. And of course, the dreaded toilet paper shortage. (Ugh.)

The citizenry of the United States is in a near-total lockdown. Without engaging in the regular retail experience – one of America’s favorite social and commercial pastimes – except out of pure necessity, what is the appropriate path for brands during this time? What should brands be doing? What should brands be saying?

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At the risk of sounding insensitive, I say advertise. There are a million reasons to be doing it right now, and to be doing it well. Here are my top five.

Advertise. Because American consumers are concerned and confused, and there’s no precedent for anything like this in recent history. (Zika, Ebola and some of the other outbreaks never reached this level of penetration or panic.) There’s never been a time when we’ve been virtually forced back into our homes to sit and wonder what will happen next. Brands have the unique opportunity to reassure consumers (of course that depends on your brand, and the category in which you compete,) or at the very least, entertain them. If your brand can be a voice of reason, or a voice of compassion, or better still, a voice of comfort through generous offers, then that voice will get valuable attention when Americans have more of it to give.

Advertise. Because with Americans huddled at home for weeks (and potentially months) at a time, there will be record HUT/PUT numbers. National brands can leverage near Super Bowl-sized audiences at what would be considered regular airtime rates. Every advertising dollar will go twice, thrice its normal distance, especially during this time in the broadcast programming calendar, which is typically a lull bridge between the large audience events of Jan/Feb and the scripted series finale season to arrive in April/May. Ratings will be unusually high for the foreseeable future, simply because more people are home with more time – and more opportunity – to consume television.

Advertise. Because programming diversity will actually be an ally during this time. Sure, people will be binging on streaming services. But after three or four hours of catching up on the hottest shows, people will turn to both local and national news. My guess is that media buyers are in a feeding frenzy right now with MSOs to snap up relatively low-cost cable buys, and especially around news programming.

Advertise. Because your competitors are sitting on the sidelines right now, and this gives you a greater potential share of mind. Every brand is thinking about the opportunities they currently have, and what to do with them. But while most of them contemplate, they’ve probably held off on filming anything new, or producing any spots with context to the national psychology. And yes, while you can suffer a great deal for a misstep at this time, the potential also exists for exponentially greater gains if you can connect. Take a look at this spot Guinness released online regarding their brand (with high context to both the pandemic and the upcoming St. Patrick’s day,) and a message that is just wonderfully articulated and perfectly timed:

Advertise. Because we will get through this at some point. Although it’s hard to imagine it today, life will return to normal. Concerts will be staged. Stadiums will be filled with 80,000 fans screaming their heads off for their favorite teams. Schools will be open. Bars and restaurants will be flooded with people who no longer want so much social distance. And most notably, shopping malls and supermarkets will be flush with consumers looking for their favorite foods, clothes, drinks, sneakers, cars, electronics, beers, and so much more. And if you were smart enough to advertise to those consumers during this time, and your message was a strategic one, (or at least a kind one,) you just might have made a valuable impression (while making valuable impressions) to new fans for years to come.

 

Gillette doubles down. And wins big.

A little over four months ago, I wrote a post about the “toxic masculinity” commercial released by Gillette. You can see that post here.

Now, Gillette is back with another ad, and all I have to say is BRAVO.

Bravo for deciding to CONTINUE to engage in an important national conversation about masculinity, and now about gender issues, and now about inclusivity.

Bravo for focusing on a narrow audience, and demonstrating that there’s room for all kinds of conversations around seemingly simple daily routines.

And bravo for – especially for – not abandoning the position the brand assumed in January. To do so would have been cowering, and cowardly. This takes guts at the highest levels of the brand, and it may very well alienate more people…but it’s an important statement at an important time.

In my previous post, I wrote that the “toxic masculinity” commercial was good, but that it stopped short of being great for various reasons, including:

“I wish this spot also involved gender and sexuality issues – toxic masculinity is especially reprehensible towards non-heterosexual males and the LGBTQ universe in general.”

And

“The real test now for Gillette is where they go from here. If they continue to embody this refreshed perspective, and if all their forthcoming ads are aspirational (where we show men aspiring to be better men, especially with and around their female counterparts,) and they continue to use their brand to inspire action and help shift attitudes, then we can look back and say, “See? This was the moment they became aware of who they were as a brand, and the responsibility they bare as a consequence.”

But if they don’t?

Then the market can have at them – and Gillette will deserve every criticism they will likely suffer, not to mention probably losing market share to a host of upstart razor companies ready to eat their lunch.

No pressure, Gillette. But the world is now watching. And you invited us all to the party.”

You can see the new ad here:

 

What some might be missing here is that this ad is NOT about a transgender’s journey, the “transition” as he calls it. (Although most detractors are focused on this singular point.) In fact, if you didn’t know the back story, you might miss it altogether.  The editing and the dialogue shroud this point just enough that it’s not jumping up and down and calling for attention.

This ad is really about teaching old dogs new tricks. And showing how those old dogs teach their offspring their old tricks. This ad is (quietly) a lot more about Dads than it is about their transgender children.

A man teaching his son to shave is an incredibly important milestone in the father-son relationship. (Irrespective of how that son identifies his own gender.) It signals so much about the passage of time, and ushers in an opportunity for the passing on of experience. [And yes, it’s also the perfect contextualized moment to introduce emotion into a discussion around promoting a specific shaving blade.]

One of the core tenets of advertising is “Show. Don’t tell.” In other words, don’t tell people how to use products. Show them how it works when you do. And similarly, don’t tell people how to be an accepting father. Show them what it might look like if you were.

Is it Gillette’s job to poke their noses into national behavior and tell men to accept their transgender children? No, of course not. But it is always a good policy to show how it can be done. Even in an idealized way. And this ad does that very well indeed.

There is a lot of divisive discourse in America today. As the lyric goes, we seem to be “stuck in a moment, and we can’t get out of it.” But it will pass, and it may even get a scant bit better. And maybe, just maybe, ads like this will be part of that transition. (See what I did there?)

Again, Gillette has us talking about these issues, and more importantly, talking about Gillette. That’s a win.

Bravo.

Is THIS the best an ad can get?

A lot has been made of the new Gillette short film entitled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” The spot, which challenges men to take a look at tired masculine clichés, like “boys will be boys,” and mentions #metoo within the first five seconds, depicts several scenes wherein some certain male behaviors have been tolerated almost hypnotically for quite some time.

A group of teens sit on a couch and flip through scenes of female marginalization in situation comedies and reality shows. An executive inappropriately (because he’s pandering,) puts his hand on a woman’s shoulder and starts a phrase, “What I actually think she’s trying to say is…” And so on.

Then, a new narrative starts to form in the video, where men intervene positively in several oft-tolerated situations, including cat-calling, fighting, and bullying. Underneath it all, the voiceover insists that “some is not enough.” And “Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

On its surface, this is an incredibly powerful social statement. And Gillette should be congratulated for boldly making it.

But as a piece of advertising, it may be overreaching at best, and carelessly ineffective at worst. While I can appreciate what it’s trying to do, the ad loses focus in its earnest to say something share-worthy on social media. (Although, in its defense, it has succeeded in doing at least that.)

The modern American consumer does not always make the loftiest cerebral decisions when trying to discern which brands to buy. Instead, they make simple, often one-word phrase mnemonic connections (that brands typically provide for them,) and choose based on how that singular experience makes them feel.

And for the past 30 years or so, Gillette has “won” consumers on a simple concept: the best a man can get. Strong tagline. A simple and understandable position for consumers. Advertising to support it. Not surprisingly, strong sales followed.

But now, Gillette has waded – rather, they’ve taken a rocket-powered speedboat – into dangerous waters that even their historically strong positioning may not be able to weather.

Here’s why.

It’s too little. And it’s too late. And so it looks like a desperate attempt to re-imagine the “appropriate” response. If there was a Gillette spot genie, these would be my three wishes:

  • I wish this spot was made a year ago, when #metoo was really a national discussion being had by, for, and with women. That it comes out now seems suspect.
  • I wish this spot also involved gender and sexuality issues – toxic masculinity is especially reprehensible towards non-heterosexual males and the LGBTQ universe in general.
  • I wish this spot took on the real issue, which is not just how young boys’ behavior gets formed, but more importantly, how that behavior is reinforced when it gets pardoned at nearly every important juncture of their lives.

In all the reaction I’ve seen, no one has mentioned that other brands, including other P&G brands, have tried this approach before, and to great reception. A zillion accolades (and ad industry awards) were showered on the #likeagirl campaign from Always. And the #realbeauty campaign from Dove was equally lauded.

Why is Gillette getting pounded by the social mediasphere? Probably because it’s disempowering. Probably because it’s by males for males, and about males and male grooming products. And that’s kinda not the point.

Probably because, as a brand, Gillette makes products for men that are purchased as much or more by women on behalf of men, and nowhere in this spot does Gillette equate toxic masculinity to domestic abuse towards women. Swing and a miss.

Now let’s be fair.  Gillette attempted to have an important conversation with American consumers, and they handled it awkwardly.  But that is STILL better than avoiding that conversation at all. And if you can imagine this, things are about to get harder for Gillette from here.

When a brand takes on a position, embodied by a bold tagline, then you have to own it – and that can come at quite a cost. The real test now for Gillette is where they go from here. If they continue to embody this refreshed perspective, and if all their forthcoming ads are aspirational (where we show men aspiring to be better men, especially with and around their female counterparts,) and they continue to use their brand to inspire action and help shift attitudes, then we can look back and say, “See? This was the moment they became aware of who they were as a brand, and the responsibility they bare as a consequence.”

But if they don’t?

Then the market can have at them – and Gillette will deserve every criticism they will likely suffer, not to mention probably losing market share to a host of upstart razor companies ready to eat their lunch.

No pressure, Gillette. But the world is now watching. And you invited us all to the party.

How to get control of your brand. Now.

It’s tough for brands these days. All the competition. All the change. And all that damn marketing! And perhaps most difficult is getting consumers to know you, then like you, and finally, to trust you.

Brands – and I’m talking about brands of all sizes, really – invest a lot of money in so many areas – it might be research and development, or operations, offices, showrooms or retail stores, or even the “perfect” ingredients for their recipes. These are all things that are relatively controllable for the brand.

But once they’re born, brands are basically out of control. Because, ultimately, consumers decide if the brand is good or bad, cool or “over,” worth the money or not. And in the age of social media, the lack of control can really get scary.

Consider the recent tweet by the then-President-elect Donald Trump:

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On the surface, it sounds like another one of the Donald’s weirdly-supportive and overly generalized ramblings. But there’s something really telling about this. The account of @realDonaldTrump has about 22 million followers. That’s a really lot. All of whom now have this “advice” about supporting and patronizing L.L. Bean.

We’ll stay out of the politics of this exchange, and whether or not it’s ethical for a candidate to receive a donation from an individual, and then use his massive influence to issue a sales pitch for her company after winning. Because eeeewww.

But what happens if that brand DOESN’T WANT that endorsement?

After the tweet, a group called Grab Your Wallet added L.L. Bean to a boycott list of any companies associated with Donald Trump. What if thousands, or even millions of L.L. Bean consumers got wind of that and decided to protest the man by dropping the brand? That has real consequences for the brand – especially if it’s publicly traded.  L.L. Bean quickly issued a statement on their Facebook page (that reaches just slightly over 750,000 followers – see the disparity there?) distancing themselves from alignment with any candidate and asking Grab Your Wallet to reconsider their position. [They haven’t.]

And if you’re a brand that’s invested time, and money, and millions of dollars and hired people all over the country and have supply chains in place and employees who count on your continued success for their livelihoods, it’s a little disconcerting to know that equity can all disappear – or at least be seriously compromised – with 140 characters or less. In this hyper-polarized age, it’s certainly possible that bonds are being formed and broken in more and more capricious circumstances.

So what’s a brand to do?

Well, it’s simple. Advertise.

While there are many ways to develop and grow a brand, advertising remains the most direct route to establishing your own position, and forwarding your point of view.

So, if you’re an apparel company, and someone does or says something terrible while wearing your clothing, advertise. If you’re a food brand that gets protested by a fringe group who claims you’re not environmentally responsible enough, advertise. If you’re a retailer and you’re losing share because some influencer tells millions of followers that she overpaid for your wares, advertise.

At the very least, you’ll have had your say. You’ll have run commercials and ads and said to the world: “this is what we stand for.” “This is who we stand for.” “This is who we are.” Otherwise, you might get hijacked by someone’s wayward ramblings…even if they may have had good intentions in the process.