To Court or Not to Court Controversy, That Is The Question. Profits or Civility? That's Another One.

My former colleague, Susan Avarde, wrote a fascinating piece (5 Brand Trends in 2019) on her LinkedIn blog earlier this week about the ways in which brands and businesses court controversy to earn or maintain their relevance with consumers. She cites P&G’s Gillette “Best a Man Can Be” campaign and the divisiveness of its anti-toxic masculinity ad as but one clear cut and recent example.

Separately, I have come upon the same observations in recent work I’ve just completed for CECP (Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose) in its 20th year anniversary celebration. You may remember this is the CEO group founded by Paul Newman to be “a force for good.”

Big business has discovered the power of purpose, beyond the more obvious and traditional joys of profit. The CEOs I’ve spoken with to a person explain the once latent and now harnessed power that is fueled by forging lasting relationships with employees, their geographic and psychographic communities, consumers and those non-profit groups which share the goals and need the catalyst of core competencies these companies bring. One of the key drivers of this shift: The demands of the Millennial workforce.

I am, in fact, a big fan of business and its marketing attempting the role of Vox populi and taking a risk, willing to champion the mindset of its consumers at the risk of alienating some. Return to the Gillette comment above. Recently, however, I have had to subject that worldview to scrutiny. Viceland, owned by Disney and A&E) is running advertising in which members of its Vice performers work to entreat us to watch. Near the close of the commercial, one fellow says it’s the show for you if “you think the DC sniper was right.”

This comment sent such a chill through my morning peddling on the stationary bike that I had to just stop, cease and desist in order to regain my mental and physical equilibrium. I thought first of what if one of the loved ones murdered by the sniper heard that ad, what heartache must surely follow. I thought of the callousness of the performer to imagine suggesting further murders in DC might be desirable and a ratings draw. (Too close to reality as recent headlines prove.) Then, I thought of this as simply the tip of the hostility iceberg melting into our culture.

It makes me ineffably sad to consider any of these three hypotheses. Yes, corporations court controversy. For sure. Stand up for what you believe. Bring the lightening to ground for your consumers. Make your employees and communities proud.

And, please Viceland, Disney and A&E, don’t be so greedy. Don’t pander to your imagined understanding of Millennials on the premise they are so counter cultural, so attitudinal, so edgy that it seems to push the scales towards profits again. Don’t lose sight of civility, empathy and the genuine joys of genuine community that shared and civil programming can bring. That’s a genuine purpose.