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OE News: Is ‘brand jamming’ the end of free speech?

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Buster the dog has become the new unlikely focus of a very civilised, very polite, but very determined online campaign to target the tabloid newspapers in the UK. Now if like me you adore the beautifully produced TV adverts that the major retailers bring out at Christmas then you can’t have failed to enjoy John Lewis’s advert featuring a gorgeous, boisterous boxer dog who just loves to bounce. If you haven’t seen it then check it out.

Buster the Dog has got marketing experts very excited too. Speaking in Marketing Week, Xenia Xenophontos, head of communications at Cath Kidston said ‘given national sentiment, most will have dreaded another tear-jerking, over sentimental Christmas ad. John Lewis’s decision to turn away from ‘sadvertising’ was somewhat expected this year given recent world events. Their turn to positivity and optimism with Buster the Boxer is one that is very much welcome.’

John Lewis have used a hashtag so people can talk about their advert on twitter using #Bustertheboxer. Now some savvy campaigners have also started using Buster to raise awareness for their cause. The campaign group, called Stop the Hate, was set up in August 2016 in protest at what it viewed as the very vitriolic and hateful language used towards refugees, immigrants and women by some tabloid newspapers, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express in particular. The group is on twitter #StopFundingHate. On their Facebook page they’ve released a mock advert in the style of Christmas adverts, calling on John Lewis. Waitrose, M&S and Sainsbury’s to stop advertising in certain newspapers. It asks how such companies can preach messages of goodwill at Christmas and then continue to advertise in the newspapers that are ‘dividing us against each other’, and has been shared almost 20,000 times already on Twitter and viewed over 6 million times on Facebook. In a John Lewis statement on the matter they say “We fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue but we never make an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper.”

In a way this is a form of ‘brand jamming’. So what is it and how does it work? It’s capitalism in a nutshell I suppose. If a brand does something that angers its consumers they vote with their feet and don’t buy the product. It’s just been amplified because that’s what twitter and social media can do. It puts the consumer with a grievance directly in contact with the brand, so that one off complaint can be magnified several times over. It’s people power to the power of ten. And #stopthehate has had some success with this already. In September 2016 Specsavers pulled an advert in the Daily Express after hundreds, including Stop Funding Hate, complained that it was funding “fear and division”.

It’s a very stoical sense of ‘doing the right thing’ and believing in the goodness of people that the #stopthehate campaign is tapping in to. It’s perfectly in line with the sentiment that goes with the Christmas advertising of big brands. The campaign argues that the tabloid news papers are appealing to the very worst in human nature. Our fear, our meanness, yes, our hate. Campaigners are calling for brands to really think about whether that is the message they want to give, and whether they should really be giving money to advertise in the newspapers that seem to be racing to see who can write the most bile-flecked, hate-filled headlines, all in their attempts to appeal to the very, very worst in human nature.

Perhaps the most significant sign that the campaign appears to be working is that Lego has just pulled out of it’s marketing deal with the Daily Mail. A concerned father wrote to the Danish toy company saying he didn’t want to buy the paper anymore, despite their free Lego giveaway. It came after the paper published an article on the Brexit ruling by three High Court judges, calling them ‘enemies of the people’. This is what dad Bob Jones had to say: “I love Lego. My 6-year-old son loves Lego. He inherited all of mine three years ago and his collection has multiplied many times since…It seems you can do no wrong. But I’m concerned. For a few years now you have done free giveaways in the Daily Mail newspaper… But I’m afraid to say I can no longer do it.” His heartfelt letter was shared over 13,000 times on Facebook alone in the week since it was written. And it worked. Lego announced it was stopping its promotional tie in with the Daily Mail. A Lego spokesman said: ‘We have finished the agreement with The Daily Mail and are not planning any future promotional activity with the newspaper’. ‘The main purpose for us as a company is to develop amazing, creative Lego play experiences to children all over the world. In order to do that successfully, we spend a lot of time listening to what children have to say. And when parents and grandparents take the time to let us know how they feel, we always listen just as carefully.’

Victory for Bob Jones who can now look forward to a Christmas with the threat of the utter agony that comes from standing on a Lego brick in bare feet!

But there are some who think this kind of campaigning stifles press freedom. Grant Feller , a former Daily Mail and Evening Standard journalist writes in Campaign, an advertising media and marketing magazine, that ‘it’s an admirable aim to stamp out hate from the media but bullying brands to pull their products is faintly fascistic.’ Dominic Posnford writing in Pressgazette also argues that ‘ once we make it ok for advertisers to make editorial judgments we could end up in a shady place.’ Its a strong argument, however what #stopthehate want to see is not a censorship of editorial content but a change in the language used. They wouldn’t suggest not covering the very important story that the Hight Court made a ruling that parliament rather than the government should be responsible for taking the country out of the European Union. However, calling the three judges who made this judgment were ‘enemies of the people’, and suggesting one of the judges was morally suspect because he was an ‘openly gay ex Olympic fencer’ is where the line is crossed from covering a story journalistically and using utterly hateful language that whips up a torrent of negative feeling. I’d argue too that newspapers are doing this to sell copies, not to truthfully represent the facts.

Getting back to the Christmas adverts and why we love them so much. Well, it’s the very best in human nature isn’t it? It’s showing us an image of how we know we can be. Warm, loving and compassionate. I adore all things Christmassy. And that emotional reaction is what the very clever marketing bods at John Lewis, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s et al want to prompt in us. Well I’m sold. I want to see that love actually is all around. As Xenia Xenophontos noted, this years Christmas adverts have made a ‘turn to positivity and optimism’, something I think so many of us want at the end of 2016. In its way, Stop the Hate, with its rather civilised, quietly decent and media savvy campaign is really what this time of year is all about, actually.

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