Where’s the line between advertising awareness raising, and profiting from suffering?

By Hannah Johnson, Managing Director, London, Blue State

Earlier this month, Maltesers launched a campaign about maternal mental health. The TV ads were funny, honest, nothing too shocking. The outdoor work talked about mothers disliking their babies – in the interests of ‘encouraging conversations’ about maternal mental health.

A few days earlier Bodyform/Libresse launched #painstories and an online ‘Pain Room’ to  encourage discussions of endometriosis and other painful conditions associated with wombs and vaginas. 
I’m sure some great women (and men) worked on these campaigns, some even personally affected by the issues raised. 

But these campaigns are problematic, and not in a ‘we’re having a difficult conversation about a tricky private issue’ way. It feels like a line is being crossed – and we need to discuss it.

These campaigns go beyond being told to ‘love your vagina/period/womb’ and straight into suffering. They sit in the suffering, encourage people to dig up and share their suffering in the interest of ‘doing what’s right’. 
But they’re not ‘doing what’s right’. They’re doing it to advertise and if it works; to sell their products. But via a vague sense of ‘purpose’.

Is this purposeful? On behalf of the brand and marketer, perhaps, but is it for the audience they’re aimed at? There is no support for the woman who dredges up feelings associated with postnatal depression, aside from the virtual high five of a hashtag or retweet. This is not a charity or commission – there’s no next step. 

Mars is donating £225,000 to some parental charities as part of a campaign, which doesn’t feel like a very adequate response to profiting from the pain and suffering of real people in order to sell chocolate. I presume the campaign itself will be intended to bring in far more revenue.

There’s no helpline, no network of people to come and help you when you remember those dark days. Just the comfort that your tweet will be embedded into a Powerpoint where a brand can show how much engagement it generated.

Was there a desperate need for a crowdsourced database of pain words? For a virtual pain museum? Or are we perhaps stuck in the adland bubble? Making a difference is to be admired. But what difference, what improvement, will these brands measure in the lives of those affected? 

These activities are often campaigns that stop and start relatively quickly – in a matter of weeks really – but these are issues that impact women long term, over decades, or for their whole lives.

The purpose of advertising is to sell things. So when the selling is exploiting suffering – and in both cases, actual pain and psychological distress – we have a problem. 

Recent weeks have reinforced once again that women’s suffering in particular has been ignored and belittled by society since time immemorial. Does that mean that brands should stay silent? 
Of course not – brands can stand up and state their allegiances, support, campaign. But do we need to ask people to publicly engage with their pain in order to sell? If we shouldn’t (and we really shouldn’t) talk about bikini bodies in order to sell our products, how is it OK to focus on this sort of pain instead?

For every high five tweet suggesting that this campaign is doing a good thing, how many more people are silently taken back to some of their darkest times and with nowhere to go? Brands aren’t charities. There’s no measurable improvement in the situation of those at stake here. Is that worth it? Brands are doing these initiatives without true charity partnerships that could really make a long-term change. Should we consider guidelines for responsible purpose marketing?

Hannah Johnson
Hannah Johnson

There’s a difference between honestly tackling difficult issues that are directly related to your brand and attaching yourself to an issue which,  if the campaign works well, will use suffering to generate sales. Tommee Tippee’s recent baby feeding video and campaign was groundbreaking, moving and most importantly, central to what its products do. It’s not an issue chosen to sit alongside the brand. It is the brand.

Brands being honest is good. Brands being ‘honest’, aligning themselves to issues that monetise pain – is not. If we’re going to start crossing this line, we need to take several steps back and think again and ask how brands can truly use their platform for good. 

By Hannah Johnson, Managing Director, London, Blue State

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