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Q&A: Christian Ward on how brands are tackling taboos

Stylus’ head of Media & Marketing explains why brands are becoming less afraid to talk honestly about taboo subjects like race, divorce and menstruation.

No longer is society remaining silent on typically taboo or under-represented issues. For brands that are bold and brave enough to tap into these conversations, the rewards are many. 

This is according to Christian Ward, our head of Media & Marketing, who recently commissioned Tackling Taboos – a trend report that explores how brands are becoming unafraid to talk honestly about difficult subjects.

He told us more about what exactly constitutes a taboo, how Bodyform is getting things right, and that Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. Oh, and buying toilet paper in Japan.

So Christian, what’s perceived as ‘taboo’, and is this definition shifting?

“It’s shifting, I think, because the internet and social media have given platforms to lots of discrete voices. This hasn’t necessarily been enough to help our attitudes change, but I think with issues like Harvey Weinstein there’s been a paradigm shift in how confident some under-represented voices now feel about speaking up and being taken seriously.

“Many things considered taboo differ from country to country. It was news to me that, in Japan, buying toilet paper is embarrassing. I can’t speak for every country, but in the West many taboos have been around issues that affect women. Why? Because they’re generally under-represented in the media, and especially in advertising.

“The same is true for minorities, and those affected by topics like sexuality and gender.”

Re: buying toilet paper in Japan, how do taboos differ globally?

“In America, people are much more openly standing up for their beliefs in the face of some fairly retrograde attitudes coming from the Trump White House. So positive things have come out of what’s become a more oppressive culture.

“I think the UK is probably more irreverent around this sort of thing – but it’s become a more divided country post-Brexit. But there is a positive in that people are speaking more freely about how they feel.

“In the report, we talk about specific things in the Middle East, which are to do with religious and political constraints. So there are specific areas where the state, or perhaps traditions, have a role to play in defining taboos.

“Generally, most of the things that have been considered stigmas – mental health, sexual harassment, women’s health and wellness issues, sex and sexuality and race and immigration – are being challenged in most countries, and this is a good opportunity for brands to help reshape the narrative.” 

Which taboos are currently being tackled?

“Probably the two most important taboos – from a brand perspective – are around race and women’s oppression.

“We published a report in 2016 called Brands Take A Stand, where we talked about the need for brands to come down on one side of the argument – and how challenging this can be when it comes to race.

“Getting it right is hard if you’re a typical ad agency, which aren’t necessarily the most diverse places. But it’s also hard for brands to address race in a sensitive manner – first they need to look at their internal makeup, and if they’re not doing it themselves then they can’t do it properly.

“I think the same applies to sexual harassment. A lot of companies need to have a hard look at their culture before they can address the problem with a clear conscience.”

Of Tackling Taboos’ findings, what struck you most?

“Bodyform recently became the first brand to ditch traditional blue demonstration liquid in favour of realistic blood in its advertising. I think it’s astonishing that it took until 2017 for a brand to not be euphemistic about menstruation.

“What’s also interesting is the breaking of familial taboos. I wrote a blog a few months back about marketing to the recently divorced – is this a demographic? Are these people who feel under-represented in the media? Well, yes it is and yes they are.

“What does the idea of traditional family dynamics mean anymore? Many families have more dysfunctional relationships, which jars with advertising being a world of perfect families.

“This is an interesting idea to explore because it taps into different emotions that brands wouldn’t usually tap in to – so more niche emotional routes to consumers. It doesn’t have to be John Lewis making you cry or Lynx making you feel sexy – there are other emotions like ‘I miss my family’, ‘I wish my parents were back together’ and ‘I haven’t seen my son for a week’.

“These emotions have the potential to be engaged with by brands in a sensitive way, and I think this is a really interesting route for marketers to explore.”

When is it appropriate for brands to tackle a taboo?

“It’s never a good idea to seek out an issue and attach yourself to it. Though some brands, like Bodyform, are obviously helping to move conversations forwards. This is great for them because it’s part of their brand purpose and history.

“This is key – otherwise it looks like you’re just trying to make yourself relevant, and consumers will see through that.

“But I think brands can be a little more risk-taking in the way they present themselves – and realise that consumers aren’t snowflakes, to use that horrible word, and can handle this stuff.”

Which brands have got it right? And wrong?

“Bodyform is clearly doing a really interesting thing. In terms of who doesn’t get it right, I’d point to the disastrous Pepsi ad. It was trying to talk about race and culture, but it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t take risks. If you’re going to tackle this issue then do it properly.”

Are brands on a sincere mission to end shame and embarrassment around difficult subjects, or are their motives ultimately commercial?

“The best brands should be motivated by both. I don’t think there’s any point being a brand that’s really great at solving the world’s issues if they’re not selling their products at the same time. On the flip side, there’s no place for brands that are just about selling.

“As I said before, we’re entering a world where marketing and advertising aren’t cutting through in the traditional sense. So what are you going to do, as a brand, if you can’t stick a poster on the wall that says ‘Our products are great, buy them’? You’ve got to be relevant to the people you want to sell to – and you can do that in any number of ways. 

“The most effective at the moment is you either create entertaining content that’s as good as stuff on Netflix, Snapchat and Instagram, or you become useful by solving problem for customers – like Nike has done with its running apps, or by trying to tackle taboo issues.”

If you’re a Stylus member, you can read Tackling Taboos now. If you’re not, find out more about the benefits of membership.