In the fall of 2014, supermodel and media personality Gisele Bündchen signed on as a brand affiliate for American sportswear and accessories company Under Armour, as a part of their ‘I Will What I Want’ campaign focused on women’s empowerment. Having traditionally worked with athletes, including soccer player Kelley O’Hara and ballerina Misty Copeland, the company’s decision to work with Bündchen lit the Internet ablaze. The thundercloud of offensive and salacious comments immediately started rolling in; “Stick to modeling, sweetie.” “What’s her sport; smiling?” “She’s far too thin to be a boxer.”
Less than a week later we discovered that this was a controlled explosion, when a video of her appeared online: alone in an empty gym, Bündchen was seen jabbing and hooking her arms into a punching bag while projections of the negative comments splattered the walls behind her.
For Under Armour – and the architects behind the campaign, agency Droga5 – the moment was pivotal. It not only brought attention to the sexist, unsolicited, and often-debilitating comments women often face online, but also made a more salient point about the relationship brands and their audiences share today.
Brands that place a mirror in front of their audiences are able to create a dialogue with them. As a result, the conversation becomes two-sided, focused on addressing larger social issues, as opposed to selling a polished and idealized world. It takes marketing beyond the boundaries of a superficial popularity contest, and into a place where brand messages can be genuinely reflective of what people care about.
Take Patagonia, for example. A few years ago, the outdoor clothing company put out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times that purposefully and strategically shot itself in the foot. “Don’t buy this jacket,” the ad proclaimed, before launching into a tirade against the excessive resources that go into making one of its flagship jackets. The campaign was Patagonia’s stab at addressing some uncomfortable truths about the ethics of the supply chains used by various big retail brands. Simultaneously, the company’s revenue grew by 30 percent to $543 million in 2012 (the year after the campaign), before jumping six more percentage points in 2013.
Consumers are predisposed to doubting the credibility of advertising claims. Considering the sheer volume of new information on the Internet everyday, skepticism has served as a much-needed screen through which people filter what they consume online. The more we know, the less we readily believe.
By highlighting its own shortcomings, Patagonia was able to jump behind the finger before it was pointed at them. They were able to hold themselves accountable and, in the process, actually gain credibility. Like Under Armour, Patagonia’s campaign understood something that’s becoming a larger theme in modern marketing: that any one product isn’t nearly as important as the larger mission of the company.
In another, more recent campaign this past October, Parisian agency BETC, sought to address the issue of alcoholism among young teens – which, as of a 2013 statistic, is responsible for around 49,000 deaths each year in France. But instead of showing its audience the tragic effects of driving while intoxicated or alcohol poisoning, the agency opted for a much more subtle way to deal with a negative, and often stigmatized, issue.
In an Instagram campaign called ‘Like My Addiction,’ for the French advocacy group Addict Aide, BETC built a fake persona around a young woman named Louise Delage, who, like many users of the platform, posted pictures of vacations and sunsets – glass of wine in hand. Over the two-month lifespan of the campaign, Louise’s mock account accrued over 50,000 likes on photos and videos. But in a closing video that revealed the origin of the account, BETC asked its audience “what they were actually liking,” making a strong statement about the often-invisible nature of addiction among people we know. Not unlike Patagonia, BETC’s campaign was also focused on re-orienting negativity to address a serious, but often overlooked, issue – to further a conversation
By engaging in serious discourse around issues relevant to their audience, brands are able to go a step beyond simply selling something to actually taking a stance on important issues. For most consumers today, especially younger generations, this soothes the bitter taste that stereotypically clumsy advertising often leaves on their tongue – it makes a brand more human.
At a time when skepticism with online advertising has defined the way marketers build campaigns, strategic negativity provides a refreshing way for brands to prove that they care about more than just selling a product. It’s a way for brands to demonstrate self-awareness; reach out from the screen or magazine and candidly say, “We’re figuring this stuff out, too.” And considering all the issues it can bring into focus, it seems that negativity deserves a better rep.
Written by Varun Nayar, Editor. Creative direction by Joelle McKenna, Senior Art Director. Animation by Tyler Hach.