I never knew that that old adage “You’re defined by the company you keep,” actually comes from the Bible (my knowledge of the Bible being pretty scant at best). Neither did I know it’s actually a contraction of a wider, and starker, statement:
“He that walketh with wise men shall be wise; but a companion of fools will be destroyed.” (Proverbs, 13:20).
It feels relevant.
Sarah Silverman, in light of the Louis CK revelations, asked the question: can you love someone who does bad things? Lena Dunham has (quite rightly) gotten herself into a whole load of hot water by jumping to the defence of her accused friend (and disgracefully, very foolishly, dismissing the claim of his accuser when she couldn’t possibly know, unless she was in the room at the time, what happened).
And Paperchase have also asked themselves the question this week – if we’re defined by the company we keep (and pay), what does advertising in the Daily Mail say about us?
Despite the outrage, it’s nothing new to lose advertisers. Advertisers pull their ads all the time when they don’t want their message sat alongside something that could be viewed negatively by their customers. Certainly in pretty much every US show or movie set around a TV show, there’s always a drama about the advertisers pulling their ads (so much so, it’s a bit of cliché).
What is new is the intersectionality of it all. Everything is connected. Everything overlaps. A commercial enterprise has a brand, a personality, but that personality is far more multi-faceted than it’s ever been because the brand lives across multiple mediums and presents different messages in each.
Once upon a time, before all these platforms existed, you could exist solely as a consumer brand. “Here we are, come and get it,” was enough. Now brands not only have a consumer story, they have an employer story and a societal story too.
We don’t only care about what we buy. We care about how it’s made, who makes it, and what they do with the profits. Realising there’s no where left to hide, businesses are advised to get ‘ahead of the story’, and to share their purpose and values. Show themselves to be ‘responsible capitalists’.
Many have embraced this approach but, as highlighted by the Paperchase episode, it’s not without risks. All business is risk. And when businesses jump on hashtags centred on social activist causes on the one hand, and advertise alongside editorial directly negating those causes on the other, it’s, well, more than a little problematic.
The frenzied responses on social media to JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING has, understandably, made these forays fraught at every turn. This is a new era. Believe it or not, there was a time (in my lifetime) when you could (naively, perhaps) take some universal ‘Western’ values for granted: everyone’s against racism; everyone believes women are equal to men; everyone knows the holocaust happened; everyone believes in liberty.
Not so anymore (who knew liberty would become a dirty word for so many?).
Everything is polarised. If the spotlight is on someone or something, for even a second, those in the darkness are quick to express dark thoughts. There doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can say without some controversy. If you’re saying black lives matter, you must be implying white lives don’t. If you’re supporting women, you must hate men. It’s hideous. And on and on it goes.
You’d think the answer for most businesses would be to stay away from social media, to stick to the owned and paid rather than earned media. But, as the advertising industry are struggling to measure, or articulate, the true value of any media right now (is the earned actually making you any money; is anyone even looking at the paid anymore; is the owned all a bit of a white elephant?), spread-betting feels the only way to go.
People do still buy newspapers. Four million of them, the Daily Mail, according to the Daily Mail. That’s a lot of eyeballs to ignore. But the toxicity of the British Press is also hard to ignore. Always scenting for blood, it destroys your celebrity endorsers or spokespeople; will happily showcase any negative customer feedback you might receive (however petty it might be); and is always after at least one of your customer or employee groups.
It’s so unregulated they seem to be able to say anything they like, claim anything they like (and, even if proven wrong, the apology you’ll get will be so small and hidden away people are unlikely to notice). And there are your lovely ads, stuck right in the middle of all of it. Sitting alongside God only knows what. Not purporting to endorse the view, but partially paying for its creation nevertheless, so, therefore, aligned.
Defining you by the company you keep.
Hypocrisy is the scourge of the age of transparency – and there’s nothing that gets the Twitterati and co more excited than finding an example of it.
So, when, for example, you make a big play about being an employer that welcomes and embraces LGBT diversity, it then looks mightily hypocritical if your ad sits alongside editorial that infers (or, more likely, directly claims) an LGBT teacher in a school is some kind of danger to society.
As most of us have learned at some point in our lives, it’s not always what you say, but how you say it, that causes conflict. You’d think in these toxic times the Daily Mail might want to dial back the vitriol rather than fuel the fire. It’s one thing to say this (whatever that may be) worries me because of XYZ, based on my beliefs about ABC; quite another to make wild claims saying this will result in XXX when you’ve no idea or any evidence to back it up (whatever happened to evidence in journalism, proportionality, balance?).
Being ‘sensational’ can definitely bring you eyeballs, but it can also come at a cost.
If we want business, if we want our employers, to be socially responsible (and I think we do, right?), then they’ve really got to mean what they say. And, if they mean what they say, they are quite right to pull their ads from a publication where their message directly opposes that of the publication (particularly if that publication has been legally chastised for their behaviour, as the Daily Mail has).
That’s not the death of free speech. If you want to keep spewing your hate, get other, more ‘aligned’ advertisers. If they won’t come, you’ll have to find other means (if you improve your shoddy journalism you might save a few quid in legal fees). Put your money where your mouth is and put your cover price up if you believe people want to hear what you have to say so much.
Or, take the hint that possibly you’re taking too much too far, understand you’re a toxic brand yourself and start your own process of rehabilitation.
Playing the media game is a little bit like playing Paper, Scissors, Stone: there’s a big chance whatever you do, there will be opposition to it.
Advertisers in this mashed up world have to be painfully careful their cut-through doesn’t end up blunting their image when they find themselves appearing alongside child porn on YouTube or bilious attacks on sections of their paying or paid communities in the press.
And there’s no point getting hysterical about Stop The Hate. Businesses should be, and often are, able to decide these things themselves. If they choose to follow the prompt, that’s their prerogative. Personally, in the age of transparency and blatant hypocrisy, I think anyone saying “Look, the emperor has no clothes on!” is worth listening to.
YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST:
I think I can guess where the next real battlefield is going to be. I was thinking this looking at MailOnline. All those features on female celebrities. The insidious hate that’s ever present. I almost admire it, as a writer. It’s quite a stroke of genius to be able to say one thing and mean something else altogether; to seem to be celebrating somebody when you’re really tearing them apart.
For “Super-slim model so-and-so shows off her figure while partying at the Something Awards,” read “Emaciated, likely drug addict had it all on display at obscure award ceremony that no one cares about.”
For “Brave actress so-and-so goes make up free on a local shopping trip,” read “Haggard-looking middle-aged woman whose been out of work for sometime seen slumming it at local supermarket.”
For “So-and-so actress shows off her curves on exotic beach holiday,” read “Woman unaware she’s being photographed on holiday has really put on weight – look how much weight she’s put on, look at her, look at it, what a loser, what a lazy cow…”
The schadenfreude, the misogyny, oozes through every sentence. Like I say, it’s cleverly done. And, if you sell female fashion, lifestyle or beauty products, it’s not a bad strategy to be advertising alongside these stories. Next to the skinny model piece is your skinny food product. Next to the ageing actress (we’re all ageing by the way, people, that’s how time works) your anti-wrinkle cream. Next to the woman on the beach, your anti-cellulite cream.
Let the media point out the flaws and you provide the solution. Genius. And it’s worked like this for decades, centuries in fact. But something is changing. If, for example, you’re a beauty brand purporting to celebrate ‘real’ women, doesn’t all this vicious scrutiny do the very opposite? Doesn’t it make you look a bit, dare I say it, hypocritical?
I see many more risks ahead.