John Lewis goes woke and the paradox of ESG

John Lewis goes woke and the paradox of ESG

Dominic Mills provides his take on John Lewis’ cross-dressing boy and how Peter Field stirred up a hornet’s nest over purposeful ads.

1. John Lewis: Let’s start this week with an ad that’s causing a kerfuffle or two. It’s the John Lewis insurance ad featuring a cross-dressing boy aged about eight. He’s raided his mum’s wardrobe and dances/crashes around the house, smashing glass and smearing paint as he goes, to the soundtrack of Stevie Nicks’s Edge of Seventeen. 

Unlike its predecessor, which had a similar storyline, but starred a girl — and charming it was too —  this one has got people hot under the collar. 

Among the criticisms: sexism; gender ideology; and “repackaging the patriarchy in glitter and rainbows.” 

There’s a more nuanced view of the ad here from Ogilvy’s Vic Day who, from the perspective of a parent of a gay son, believes it stereotypes gay boys.

“To my son”, she writes, “it read as a young gay child presenting with all the old-fashioned high camp stereotypes of what it means to be gay. And it made him feel awkward.” That’s not something I would have appreciated. 

I have mixed feelings about the ad. On the positive, it’s brave, different and certainly out on the edge. It’s going with the grain, which is the opening up of LGBTQ+ issues to debate and the normalisation of children exploring their sexuality. 

I can just about remember adland’s first attempts to show gay people in ads — perhaps 25 years ago — and the controversy that surrounded those. This is a long road and those advertisers who start out early on it can expect opprobrium. But eventually, as we see depicted in many ads, it becomes the norm. 

On the other hand, why does John Lewis, of all brands, feel this is a battle it needs to fight? What does it gain from this? Does it believe it’s become too bland? 

I’ve been debating this with myself for a few days now, but what really bugs me about the ad is that elements of it are just not rooted in reality.

First, getting down with the detail, are we really expected to believe that John Lewis insurance would pay out, no questions asked, for all the wanton, deliberate damage the boy causes?

More pertinently, I can’t get over the way the mum sits there watching as mayhem ensues. She looks marginally surprised, but neither horrified or furious. It’s like she’s thinking: ‘Yeah, that’s cross-dressing boys for you.” But at the very least she might have ripped up his gold-star chart. 

2. The paradox of ESG: One of the interesting comments made by M&C Saatchi CEO Moray MacLennan in an interview last week was the huge rise in clients wanting to check their agencies’ ESG (environmental, social, governance) credentials.

Like every good ad exec he sees this as an opportunity, and announced that M&C would be launching its own ESG consultancy this year. 

There’s no doubt that ESG is a new mantra for corporates everywhere, and another stick, sorry criterion, with which procurement departments can beat up suppliers.

But ESG is a paradox, or to put it less politely, a giant box-ticking riddle.

As it is practiced in the investment world, from where it is now spreading like Japanese knotweed, it is supposed to be a screen with which to identify good corporate citizens. 

Odd then that, to take two examples, it produces strange results.

Imperial Brands, maker of tobacco products, was last year awarded an ‘A’ for its ESG efforts by MSCI, a key global stock market index. BAE Systems, maker of military hardware, similarly so. 

As this piece explains, the problem is that ESG focuses not on what a company does, but how it operates. Thus, to take it to an extreme, a thoroughly evil or amoral company, or one whose products are inherently damaging to consumers, can score highly if its ‘procedures’ tick the box.  

It is, in short, an open invitation to green-washing, woke-washing, purpose-washing and all kinds of corporate sanitisation. Nothing to do with advertising, of course. 

3.  Purpose and the hornet’s nest:  Poor old Peter Field. ‘Mr Effectiveness’ opened himself up to a good old kicking last week here and here, a little for his assertion much of the criticism is “vitriolic” and “naive and not entirely justified”, but mostly for his methodology.

As far I can see, Field’s research focused only on purpose campaigns with ‘strong business effects’ and screened out that didn’t produce much effect. 

You can read his version of the research here. 

It seems a strange mistake for someone like Field to make, and most of the criticism (as is mine) was prefaced by acknowledgement of a) his unparalleled knowledge and understanding of effectiveness and b) the fact that everyone likes and respects him. 

He offers some, pretty obvious to me, advice, primarily that purpose should have mass appeal to popular issues the target market and purpose should be aligned to a brand’s product or benefits.

I think this is what we might call ‘small p’ purpose, which brands are recognising is far better than pointless, unachievable, ‘lets-fix-the-world’ problems. 

But there are two puzzles to me.

One, to what extent were the strong purpose cases the result of good/great advertising and strategy rather than purpose itself? Surely, it is vital to disentangle the two. 

And second, why on earth was his research sponsored by Danone? It’s very nice of it, but it seems possible that Danone, which has recently gone all out on purpose (B Corp and a mission statement full of “serving society and people’s interests” waffle, has a vested interest in proving to its stakeholders the validity of its new position. 

I should note, however, that in March Danone fired its CEO, the man who started the company down this winding road. Was the Field exercise designed to meet his schtick, but it was too late — or everybody forgot — to call a halt?  

4. Car ad/perfume ad…an identity crisis: Sad sap that I am, I try to pay attention to ads I see, especially if they are new. But this one, I think on Gogglebox ten days ago, left me utterly bemused. 

A free diver falls in slow-mo gently to the bottom of the sea. Then he rises and floats around. 

Our diver, a cool-looking, contemplative fellow, stares around as though he’s looking for the meaning of life. A woman hands him the key to a car, they exchange meaningful glances, and off he goes. 

“What is time well spent?”, asks the voiceover. “Well, that’s your business.” 

Hmm, definitely a perfume ad, I thought, identifiable by that unique combination of moodiness and vapidity. 

Mysteriously, the car has a German numberplate and, on the TV version, the super says “only available in the south-east”. 

But why, if your proposition is luxury and a car that you can personalise, target the UK market with a German-registered car?

Answer: because it’s a made by a German agency, and is a limited-edition “luxury” car marque called Genesis and owned by Hyundai, but desperate to pretend it’s something else. 

It looks cheap and lazy. The opposite of the luxury and attention to detail the ad hints at. But maybe you just can’t beat that smell of engine oil and leather upholstery. 


Media Jobs