Dominic Mills
Sep 09, 2011

Opinion: Riots lead to a period of introspection for adland

"Do ads have a responsibility or do they operate in a moral vacuum?"

Opinion: Riots lead to a period of introspection for adland

This month’s riots and looting across England’s major cities may be one of those defining moments when the country looks itself in the mirror and goes: ‘How did that happen?’

Pressing questions have to be asked of the police and politicians first. But given the looters’ choice of booty – branded trainers, branded sports gear, consumer electronics, mobile phones and so on–there are questions to be asked, some of which fall at the door of advertising, particularly those brands that promote a ‘revolution-is-cool’ ethic.

The key here, as blogger and advertising executive Chris Barraclough pointed out, is that they looted for brands, not food. They place a higher value, he says, on a smartphone than on education, and on a pair of trainers than they do a job.

So, has advertising in Britain created a culture that places materialism and greed above basic human values such as respect, decency and community? If, as many (but not all) of, the rioters were members of an under-privileged, under-educated, underclass, why is it that their best – or only – means of self-expression and self-validation is through brands, especially brands that they cannot afford? What responsibility does advertising have for that? Does it, and should it, operate in a moral vacuum?

These are painful questions for brands, marketers and agencies. They may also face calls for statutory regulation, and greater controls on advertising to youngsters.

But, even if this were desirable, it is virtually impossible to see how it might work. The more responsible brands might, if they could all agree, sign up to a tame code of conduct (non-binding, of course) but as soon as one breaks it, they all will.

Brand contamination

Some will feel a bit sorry for Blackberry, which has has suffered considerable negative publicity because its BBM instant messaging service was the medium of choice for the looters organising their next targets.

Ironically, in one newspaper the day after the riots, Blackberry ran ads next to pictures of the looters carrying their smartphones – at least one of which looked just like a Blackberry.
This is an image which may come back to haunt Blackberry, whose brand certainly faces contamination. It’s problem is that it has lost its market positioning as the ‘business-class’ phone to Apple and Android phones, and gained a less desirable one with teenagers and the urban underclass.

Apart from the negative connotations of such an association, these are fickle, price-driven, consumers that do not offer a long-term or healthy place to be.

Levi’s (almost) own-goal

With all the self-righteousness that a fashion brand can muster, Levi’s announced the day after the riots that it was pulling all UK exposure of its new Wieden and Kennedy ‘Go Forth’ global campaign as a result of the riots.

The reason: a sequence, 47 seconds in (watch the ad at, in which a man confronts a line of riot police.

“Gosh”, we are supposed to think, “how restrained and how responsible this socially aware company is.”

Hmm. Well, this is a company whose president, Robert Hanson, recently said “People who wear Levi’s get shit done.”

Actually, I think they’ve done themselves a favour by pulling this dreadful, pompous and over-blown piece of ‘faux’ cool advertising. You could stick any fashion brand on it and find it equally underwhelming. Let’s hope they bury the whole campaign for ever.

Campaign India