Can marketers adapt to the protest generation?

As the recent storm of anti-globalization protests are proving, corporations are becoming the targets of a generational discontent not seen since the anti-Vietnam '60s. One need only look at events at the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, earlier this month and Quebec City Summit of the Americas in April to see a groundswell that marketers can't afford to ignore.

As the recent storm of anti-globalization protests are proving, corporations are becoming the targets of a generational discontent not seen since the anti-Vietnam ’60s. One need only look at events at the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, earlier this month and Quebec City Summit of the Americas in April to see a groundswell that marketers can’t afford to ignore.

Forget the violence that has dominated the headlines. We’re talking 200,000, mostly young, protesters who took to the streets in Italy; 20,000 in Quebec; a mass of anger focused at the injustices of living in a world seen to be controlled primarily by corporate agendas.

The marketing community had best take heed. This is one angry demographic and one it is going to have to learn to communicate with.

‘We’re living in a world – and you only have to look at Genoa – where big corporations are distrusted and to some extent feared,’ says Colin Flint, VP, group account planner with BBDO Canada in Toronto.

‘In that context…we have a duty to the industry to present ourselves honestly and truthfully in order not to fuel those concerns, and to reassure people that corporations can be good citizens.’

If trust is the issue, then at the core is the simple, age-old ethical question of honesty in advertising. Can corporations continue to make empty promises simply to generate sales when faced with such growing cynicism?

Case in point: Canadian financial institutions, Flint says, seem to be lost in this myth that they are providing consumers some sort of comfort service, whether by guiding them toward home ownership or retirement. But everyone knows a bank’s sole purpose is to make money.

While banks continually pay lip service to the notion of communicating directly to young people and offering targeted financial packages, the question remains, do they really understand what these consumers are all about?

But while such communication is likely seen as a lycra-challenging stretch by this media savvy demo, it’s certainly not a hanging offense. So how do you know when you’ve crossed the line?

There appears to be unanimous opinion that ad execs at Sony Pictures crossed the line when they invented a fictitious movie reviewer, David Manning, and attributed glowing praise to reviews that had never existed in ads for the studio’s movies.

According to Alan Middleton an assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, in pure ethical terms ‘when you out-and-out lie or when you out-and-out disguise a major negative in a trade-off, that is where there is a clear lack of ethics.’

The issue of trade-offs is important because advertising, by its very nature, must shroud those features that do not reinforce the brand strengths. The public would surely view a laundry detergent manufacturer as a Darwinian loser if its positioning was ‘Cleans better but makes colours fade and eats holes in cotton.’

‘The key issue in most advertising is – by the old sales technique of putting your best foot forward – you ignore the trade-offs,’ says Middleton. ‘Consumers are wise that there are trade-offs.’

Air Canada, for example, launched a new campaign recently touting its safety record. To no one’s surprise, the spots fail to mention any of the customer service issues the airline has been grappling with since its merger with Canadian Airlines.

But Air Canada has suffered a series of blows to its reputation because previously its communications focused on promising to upgrade its customer service. A promise it never delivered.

‘Reputation is a function of trust and how ethical one is perceived to be,’ says Len Brooks, a professor of business ethics at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

‘If you aren’t honest and forthright, then there is a risk that you will damage your reputation and therefore damage the potential for future revenue.’

In fact some brands such as U.K.-based Body Shop and Guelph, Ont.-based Sleeman Brewery are using the notion of honesty to a competitive advantage, he says.

Still, despite the best intentions of such marketing, some close to the anti-corporate movement in Canada see it only as a cynical ploy – just another spin in the constantly revolving door of brand positioning.

Kalle Lasn is the founder and editor of AdBusters, a Vancouver-based magazine that covers issues ranging from genetically modified foods to unethical advertising practices of major corporations.

Early on in his career, Lasn says he was fond of the honest, straightforward approach of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. But after watching the company for several years he now believes people are beginning to see the health and beauty retailer’s stand on issues such as the environment and honesty in advertising as just a point of brand differentiation.

In fact Lasn is so cynical about the motivations of corporations that he calls the issue of honesty in advertising ‘a bogus debate.’

‘It’s the job of advertisers to be disruptive and flout social norms, to shock and trick us and in a sense to be dishonest. That’s what advertising is all about,’ he says.

Lasn, who is tied to the anti-globalization movement and who was in Seattle in 1999 for protests of the World Trade Organization, says this generation feels exploited by the excesses of marketing and the media.

‘One young guy in Seattle told me, they feel mind fucked,’ he says. ‘They feel that ever since they were little babies, they have been suckered and propagandized and lied to.’

Lasn predicts marketers can expect a backlash against advertising similar to what happened 20 years ago with the environmental movement.

‘There’s going to be a kind of mental environmental movement,’ he says. ‘It’s going to make advertisers and agencies and corporations responsible for what they put out into the mental environment much in the same way that we have now made corporations responsible for what they put into the physical environment.’

BBDO’s Flint sees a similar possibility. But he believes the marketing community has the ability to adapt to the changing climate. Once the market really begins to demand a new honesty, he has little doubt marketers will be ready with an ample supply.

‘One of the real strengths of marketing is it responds to people’s needs,’ he says.

‘If people’s needs are for corporations to be more open and honest, then corporations will find that is a successful business strategy and will start to do that. At that point, the groundswell of opinion behind these movements will start to fade away.’