As we head unsteadily towards the ending of the pandemic and the coming of Brexit, bringing back both social freedom and the reality of our long-term economic difficulties, it has never been more important to talk about racism.
As advertisers, this most sensitive and urgent of subjects brings with it some new responsibilities. There is the old issue of the place of ethics in advertising, and what we do about it as creatives, writers and strategists. And there’s also the other side of the coin. What happens when a brand sees an opportunity in an ethical issue to self-promote?
Let’s be clear. Advertising exists to sell. If creatives and agencies have a conscience, they may avoid the more dubious brands, although thankfully the poisonous task of making alcohol and cigarettes look cool has mostly been taken away. (Betting is still a problem.) But what should we do about this new and equally invidious issue, when a brand decides it wants to exploit a cause?
One principle we should never forget is that, when selling, it is always essential to be clear and transparent about doing that. Honesty is not just best for the conscience, but best for the brand. The first question we must always ask of any message we are given is, is it true? Telling the truth makes all sorts of things possible.
It’s always nice when considering these imponderables to be able to talk about an example of someone getting it right. As so often happens, Sainsbury’s Gravy Song isn’t a big statement. It’s just a good, honest ad. It succeeds where so many have dismally failed recently in pulling off the shot-on-an-iPhone look while remaining unforced and engaging. It’s beautifully executed. It’s well shot, brilliantly edited to combine all sorts of sources, and above all brilliantly written and performed using a recorded phone call. The script is wonderful. It manages to talk about the product without us even noticing. It’s a confident, laid back, brand leading piece of work. It’s the best Xmas ad this year by a country mile. At a time when a lot of brands have decided to abandon the blockbuster this ad hits all the right notes – warm, authentic and above all believable.
To see how hard this is to do well, compare it with the Branston ‘Hit of Home’ ad that’s also just appeared. This uses exactly the same technique, with ‘home-made footage’ and voice over. There’s a lot of it about, and this one is not quite as good. It’s well cast but the footage falls between two stools – it’s not really home-made but it’s not particularly well filmed. The product feels shoe-horned in. The script has a couple of nicely observed lines but you can hear it ticking the boxes. Unlike the Sainsbury’s ad, you can see and hear the sell.
I started off by saying that we should remember why we do this. What’s wrong with being selly? The answer to this is in the other point I made. If you’re going to sell you need to tell the truth or you lose your audience. If you show ‘real people’ but you can see they’re acting, you’ve failed. If you write ‘real voices’ but they sound like an ad voiceover (Hovis in this instance), you’ve failed. And if you show people forced apart and claim that their connecting moment is contained in a jar of pickle, well, maybe you make the pickle. The audience knows it’s not true, and they’ve seen it thousands of times before.
Of course, there are a lot of far worse examples than the Branston ad, and I feel slightly guilty about picking on it. It’s inoffensive, but that’s the problem. Because it doesn’t ring true, there isn’t anything there to make it memorable. Again, compare it with the Sainsbury’s ad. Where did the Gravy Song come from?
What has all this got to do with racism? It has a lot to do with it, because it shows the importance and the impact of simply telling the truth. Sainsbury’s are selling food in a warm and funny way, and they have represented how we really are in order to do it. They have succeeding in talking about food the way we talk about food. The ad’s commonality, perhaps, is why it has attracted so much racist comment. The ad, and the way that the TV channel and other supermarkets have supported it, is a genuine mark of progress at a time when we sorely need it.