Cannes 2019: Is purpose being taken seriously?

From 'woke-washing' to playing it too safe on diversity, speakers at Cannes tackle how brands can truly commit to doing good.
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One only need look at the work being elevated at Cannes Lions this year to see the degree to which brands are making purpose and causes a more major part of their public-facing image.

Nearly every Grand Prix awarded so far has gone to work that has embodied some element of “purpose,” from racism to freedom of the press to environmentalism to accessibility (although it could be argued that Nike’s “Dream Crazy,” which does not centre specifically on any cause, does so simply by choosing Colin Kaepernick to represent its brand following his highly public protests against police brutality and racism in America).

Only four of the 13 Lions awarded to Canadian work so far did not embrace some kind of cause, societal issue or other “greater good.” And no Grand Prix for Good could be awarded in the Health categories this year, since all the Golds in the categories went to brands, and no non-profit clients ended up being eligible.

However, any agencies or brands that simply try to jump on a cause to win accolades, be it from award jurors or consumers, might be disappointed.

During a roundtable discussion this week, Alan Jope, who took over as CEO of Unilever this year, spoke about the results the company has seen for brands that have purpose. Brands within Unilever that have embraced sustainability initiatives, for example, have grown 69% faster than the rest of its portfolio in 2018, so brands that do not have some kind of purpose “will have no long term future with Unilever,” Jope said.

But he also warned against “woke-washing,” ads that are not backed up by any real action by the brand and undermine the credibility and trust consumers have in companies claiming to be doing good.

“Done properly, done responsibly, [purpose] will help us restore trust in our industry, unlock greater creativity in our work, and grow the brands we love,” Jope said, though he later added, “['Woke-washing' is] putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply.”

There are some areas where authenticity in purpose remains a challenge. On one of many panels addressing LGBTQ representation in advertising, trans activist Charlie Craggs (best known for her “Nail Transphobia” campaign) was among those who said that while some representation was better than nothing (“at this point I’m begging for my life”), an attitude of “checking a box” and stereotyping when it came to representation in ads persisted. The panel said one reason for that was a lack of not just LGBTQ people behind the scenes, but even LGBTQ allies. Despite transgender and non-binary people having increased visibility in ads, Craggs could still point to instances where she had been misgendered on sets for ads she had been cast in.

The lack of internal representation could also be why there is a homogenous portrayal of queer people in advertising, with brands attempting to be brave still playing it safe. A failure to represent that full range of what the LGBTQ community looks like conveys a lack of authenticity to those same people, who tend to be more aware of when companies efforts to capitalize on the market during Pride month are hollow.

“If you’re going to turn it up, it’s not going to be two cute guys kissing on camera,” said Tag Warner, CEO of The Gay Times. “That’s not the sum of the community. It’s a complex place. Are you, as a brand, willing to get involved beyond the rainbow flag?”

Going back to Jope’s point, Craggs said consumers can “sniff out” when queer people and their allies aren’t represented behind the scenes, be it on the set of an ad or inside a company’s executive ranks, adding that the fact that she was only booked for ads during Pride showed a lack of long-term commitment.

Warner added that brands should look for what their common ground with the LGBTQ community might be in order to be authentic and do the most good, such as addressing homophobia in a specific industry or part of society to which their business is relevant.

Looking at who is involved in creative development can also be a way to make efforts related to purpose more genuine. Free The Bid, an organization working to increase the amount of women directors who received advertising assignments, which received support from P&G, Publicis and HP at last year’s festival, used Cannes to announce the creation of Free The Work, a discovery service for brands and agencies to improve the representation of women, transgender and non-binary people in all aspects of the filmmaking process, from actors to cinematographers.

Jope also added that agencies should reject briefs for any campaign from a brand whose actions don’t back up the purpose they are attempting to associate with, lest their other efforts to “unleash purpose” through creativity be damaged.