(Mis)Representation: Brands Accused Of Exploiting Working Class Culture

31/08/2018

More than half of young people aged 18-30 believe that brands exploit working class culture, according to Amplify’s latest Young Blood study.

It’s a damning statement that further underlines appropriation as hugely problematic. And as calls for diversity across media grow, brands are grappling more and more with the task of finding the most credible ways to engage their audience, constantly straddling the line between championing the merits of a culture, and potentially exploiting it.

Mars UK has been notably bold in its push for representation in recent years through its marketing for Maltesers. Three TV spots featuring people with disabilities, in humorous, relatable narratives played as part of a Channel 4 diversity competition have been succeeded by ads approaching everyday stories about women often overlooked in media: a lesbian lamenting the pitfalls of online dating, and a group of friends going through menopause, for example.

This is representation that circumnavigates prevailing stereotypes, and actually engages with relatable human truths. “It’s not just gender, it’s the intersectionality of it,” explains Michele Oliver, the vice-president for marketing at Mars UK, “not only are women not often seen in advertising, but the… types of women we do see are very narrow.” And it paid off, not only as a most successful in terms of buzz and sales performance in ten years.

It helps if brands put their money where their mouth is. And, better still if the brand’s message and actions align with championing working class excellence. Adidas, for example, famously funds and backs young athletes and musicians, putting the human element at the centre across its communications – such care pays off, as endorsements of the brand seldom seem out of place, and Adidas remains a respected fixture amongst rising grime artists and British athletes.

Penguin Random House recently announced a similar initiative, partnering with Stormzy to launch his own imprint, #Merky Books. It’s a move that will not only allow the grime artist to publish his own book, but serve as a platform for a new generation of voices; a PR-able scheme backed with real corporate responsibility, funding internships at the publishing house, and open submissions for first time writers to win a publishing contract in the future.

The news comes after CEO Tom Weldon expressed concern in the lack of working class people in publishing, and calling its remedy an “urgent commercial imperative.”

These are all welcome breaks from the ways in which working class culture is so often depicted in just one way: fetishised stereotype. Back in April this year, Puma hosted an experiential PR event named the House of Hustle, inspired by council estate drug dealing.

It shouldn’t take an expert to know this kind of fetishisation and misrepresentation is tone deaf, inappropriate and offensive on so many levels. Pepsi found that out the hard way too by co-opting a powerful, political meme tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, and sanitising it in the most cynical of ways.

But some brands are managing to bridge this gap. McCain’s and Iceland’s move away from celebrity-fronted campaigns, towards depicting real families at home, are great examples. That these broadcast campaigns feature diverse, working and lower middle-class casts speaks to whom the brand values and best understands. Iceland goes a step further, underpinning its efforts by engaging entrepreneurial influencers, and partnering with expert voices like Channel Mum, that genuinely reflect its audience.

There’s an inherent value exchange in media. As more and more brands vie for our attention, in increasingly vocal pieces of content, brands face more scrutiny than ever. That the same Young Blood study concluded “credibility rather than cool” was a motivator for consideration and purchase amongst young people, demonstrates the key in all this: authenticity. After all, why would any consumer engage with a brand that fundamentally misunderstands them?

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