Should brands show up around taboo topics?

Should brands show up around taboo topics?

What counts as a taboo topic in 2024? And what role should brands role in tackling them?

Ahead of our Future of Brands conference next week which will tackel this question, and the role of responsible media and inclusivity in advertising across its sessions, The Media Leader asked speakers, agencies and strategists if they thought brands should get involved in hard-to-discuss issues.

Kara Osborne, CEO, UM UK

“Yes, brands should show up. We know through our own UK by UM research, that audiences do in fact look to businesses for support at difficult times, or in tackling sensitive subjects, and feel brands could do more to make a positive impact.

“Shared societal experiences, positive and negative, can bring people together.

“During a divisive political climate, brands do have an opportunity to create deeper more meaningful connections against the topics people care about but don’t know where to turn.

“The key is to be authentic and true to your values in the communications and experiences we create, as consumers will call out brands lacking credibility.”

Osborne is speaking on this topic at the Future of Brands regarding UM’s partnership with CALM and MoneySuperMarket and its Money Talks research reviewing the mental health crisis emerging from the taboo of talking about money worries in the UK.

Jake Dubbins, managing director, Media Bounty

“I think it depends on what is considered taboo. Media Bounty worked very closely with Bodyform when the brand started to use ‘real blood’ instead of blue liquid in their comms. That was taboo at the time and the simple choice of showing the truth felt radical at the time.

“We are also just launching a campaign for Men’s Minds Matter to raise awareness of the link between gambling and suicide in the lead up to the Grand National. Is that a taboo? Or just telling the truth?

“What is considered taboo is often set by the prevailing culture, influenced by so many things – politics, religion, the patriarchy. Even basic human rights and climate are being dragged into what is considered taboo by the culture wars, or those determined for things not to change.

“Brands should be doing the work to understand the difference between what is actually taboo and what are the very real problems their audiences face and if they have a role to play to solve those problems.”

Dubbins is speaking at the Future of Brands about the link between effectiveness and responsible media.

Monica Majumdar, head of strategy, Wavemaker UK

“There’s a spectrum of taboo. There are the topics in the cultural conversation that may appear taboo but are commonly discussed in culture, and brands can authentically show up around them to show support or to help consumers protest. Then there are the topics that no brand should be around, such as war, abuse, crime.

“I think the general rule of thumb: can you, as a person, talk about it at the pub or with colleagues? Then yes, you can show up as a brand. If it’s a subject you wouldn’t be able to discuss in the open, then brands shouldn’t show up around them in the largest open platform that is advertising.

“We also have to be more specific when we discuss taboo and what we mean. I think bold brands with a clear identity and mission can show up in spaces around certain taboo subjects that consumers are actively protesting against, such as Roe v Wade. Some brands might lose customers by doing so, but if the sentiment is true to the brand’s ethos, then they’ll attract more of the customers they want anyway.”

Majumdar is speaking at the Future of Brands on if data and measurement the glue that can bring creativity and media back together.

Lee Mabey, managing partner, Dentsu X

“As agency leaders, we provide guidance to our clients on how they responsibly engage with culture and the zeitgeist. It will ultimately be their decision on whether to heed this advice.

“After all, every brand has its own appetite of risk and safety guidelines to adhere to. Therefore, the perception of what is (and what isn’t) taboo varies from advertiser to advertiser. Renegade brands might posit certain topics are fair game, whereas others will err on the side of caution.

“However, it a non-negotiable that brands must act respectfully to all parties when showing up around sensitive subjects.”

Mabey is speaking at the Future of Brands about how brands can work to ensure they are built & designed with inclusivity at the heart.

Richard Temple, CEO, JAA Media

“I think very much a case of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

“By all means do so, however there is always an inherent risk of creating revulsion in your target prospects. Most audiences only get a partial gestalt of any brand communications, so they may not give you the time to overcome their initial disgust.

“Indeed the evidence from the likes of System 1 and other established creative diagnostics suggest that brands should precede with caution on taboo topics.”

Mehul Ashra, strategist at the7stars

“What constitutes being taboo is so broad, so I’m going to focus my response on the more progressive side of ‘taboo’.

“And my answer is unequivocally yes. Subjects like mental health, sex positivity, even periods have been propelled with the help of brands.

“And we now live in a world where brands are catalysts and drivers of cultural change. My only caveat is to do it with integrity because today’s taboo is tomorrow’s social progress.”

David Wilding, chief strategy officer, EssenceMediacomX

“Taboo topics help to maintain the status quo and hamper progress and at their worst can foster pain and human misery. They have no place in 2024, so if brands want to help tackle them, then I’m all for it. 

“But as George Michael tells us — if you’re gonna do it, do it right. 

“And to do it right brands need to consider their motivation (why are they doing this, really?), their role (what’s the link to their product and brand?) and their execution (it can’t feel smug or self-congratulatory – “look at us over here, tackling a taboo, aren’t we brave?”). Brands also need a think about how they genuinely measure progress and their exit strategy. 

 “Not easy. But worth it.” 

Sam Drake, chief growth officer, Goodstuff

“Only if there is an authentic connection between the brand and the topic. And only then if they can bring something of value to the topic.

“Without either, showing up will do more harm than good. Great examples of brands doing this include DTC brand, Peace Out (talking about acne), to ITV (talking about mental health), both brands making a positive impact around topics not openly talked about.”

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