Only dead fish go with the flow
21 January 2017 08:20 (South Africa)
Opinionista Alistair Mackay

Standing up to bullies is not ‘narrow self-interest’

  • Alistair Mackay
    Alistair-Mackay.jpg
    Alistair Mackay

    Alistair’s career has taken turns through branding, politics and social media – but he left before the trolling made him lose all hope for humanity. Having failed at the Gen Y slashie thing, he decided to just do what he loves full time: writing and content strategy. He’s based in Cape Town, and can be found at @almackay on twitter.

Justin McCarthy recently wrote a post titled “What an advert for a tub of margarine can teach us about the dangers of narrow self-interest”. It was, in essence, a defence of being politically incorrect in order to stimulate debate, and a lament about the sheepish power of crowds to water down any kind of communication into something bland. At least that’s how it was presented. What he is actually defending, however, is homophobia.

Let’s start with this: “While the ad also strikes a discordant chord amongst some gays and lesbians, presumably because of the pain of their personal experiences, I despair when they condemn brands that dare trespass into ‘their’ sacred territory.”

The inverted commas in this sentence are telling. McCarthy sees no problem with a debate on homosexuality being grounded firmly in a heterosexual narrative (because, of course, we haven’t had enough of that shoved down our throats yet). I wonder if McCarthy would also feel that a debate about race in South Africa should always begin from the white perspective? Or that men should lead the fight for feminism? Pierre de Vos also points this out in his response to McCarthy when he observes that those who are “insiders in every way have little reason to ask critical questions”. It may be hard to accept that the whole world does not revolve around one’s own paradigm, and that gay people may actually understand homophobia better than anyone else.

But gay people are not the territorial creatures we are portrayed to be in his article. I imagine that almost all of us would welcome a national debate on homophobia, rather than try to shut it down. We have been the people to suffer from it, after all. But what would constitute a debate is actually listening to what we have to say – rather than trying to bully us with accusations of being “knee-jerk”, “unthinking” and “selfishly-hypersensitive”. It is not a genuine or particularly beneficial exchange of ideas when your “debate” involves telling your opponent what they should think and how they should feel. If that is your definition of a debate about homophobia then yes, you can keep it.

Let’s also not forget the implicit threat in what he says, that even if the entire gay community found the ad offensive it can be dismissed as “narrow self-interest”. Does this mean, then, that no one is allowed to feel offended unless they are in the majority? Should pop culture feel free to bully and condemn Jews, maybe? Or the disabled? If these groups take offence, they are just acting selfishly. They can’t take a joke. It’s all narrow self-interest.

McCarthy has since backtracked in a follow-up article, where he seeks to frame his original argument as part of a legal argument about freedom of speech. I am no legal expert and I will leave that side of the debate to the legal profession. Let us be clear, though, that this was not McCarthy’s original intent, which is found in his original opening paragraph: “Does this really warrant the nature of the outrage? Does it engender or reinforce prejudice?”

So why is the ad so offensive? If McCarthy would genuinely like to understand, the Flora ad is hurtful and prejudicial for the simple reason that it casts the parent as the victim and the gay child as the perpetrator. No straight person could possibly know just how difficult it is to come out. Your whole life is on the line. You are not sure if your parents will still love you, and you are not sure if you will have any friends left. You have been fed messages all your life that being gay is shameful and you have internalised most of that as self-hatred. It takes tremendous amounts of courage to come out in spite of all of that; to try to be honest about who you are when the whole world seems to judge you harshly. All the gay child wants from his or her parents at that point is the reassurance that they are still loved.

If anyone needs a strong heart on that day, it is the gay child.

It may be difficult for the parent to hear, and they may well have their own concerns to think about it. But ultimately, they are the minor characters in that scene. It just simply isn’t as difficult for them as it is for the child, and an ad that that portrays it as such is simply rubbing salt in the wounds of many gay people who still struggle with society’s perception of them.

Flora was not trying to spark a debate on homophobia, and to try and post-rationalise the campaign like this is disingenuous. Their campaign was not a heroic struggle against South Africans’ prejudices. It was just a clumsy attempt to catch people’s attention by using an emotional issue without having thought through the implications of what they were saying. It simply regurgitates and reinforces the prejudice – or the “human truth”, to quote McCarthy – without challenging it in the slightest.

McCarthy goes on to say: “The instinctive response from corporations is to back down quickly, apologise and institute a bunch of new regulations that strip layers of managers of any decision-making ability. The net result is the faceless, androgynous, characterless and risk averse company whose agenda is now being wagged by a tail of mother grundies who want the world to conform to their narrow criteria.”

This is an interesting point, but it is a red herring. There may be a fight to be had about the dynamics within multinational companies, or about the relationships between clients and agencies. I imagine it is worse for everyone when layers of managers or creatives are stripped of their decision-making powers. But the argument that this response is inappropriate or unfair is based on the assumption that the Flora ad was not offensive. The best way to ensure your agency’s managers aren’t stripped of responsibility is probably to create advertising that is sensitive and good.

The ad was offensive, as I’ve attempted to explain above. It was homophobic and Unilever has said as much. This is not because they have been bullied, but because they saw that their campaign was doing the bullying.

McCarthy is correct that the best advertising connects with us on a deep level, on a universal human truth. That is not to say that all human truths are positive. Jealousy is a human truth, for example, and so is hatred. We have a shadow and a light side and I would argue that the best advertising is that which brings out the best in us.

Advertising is effective when it makes people feel good about themselves. It resonates with our human truths in a way that makes us feel understood, appreciated, exhilarated or connected.

If, for some inexplicable reason, Flora had wanted to spark a debate on homosexuality it could have done so in a way that showed empathy and a generosity of spirit. It could have sought to understand how gay people feel about coming out, and designed an ad that resonated with their experiences. The emotional capital it could have built by showing it’s “on your side” would have been immense. It would even have resonated with the parents of gay children.

And it would not have been that difficult to do. The campaign would have had an entirely different message if they made it clear that it was the child’s heart that was fragile and in need of some strength. Sadly, it appears the advertising agency didn’t think that opportunity to connect on a human truth was quite funny enough. DM

  • Alistair Mackay
    Alistair-Mackay.jpg
    Alistair Mackay

    Alistair’s career has taken turns through branding, politics and social media – but he left before the trolling made him lose all hope for humanity. Having failed at the Gen Y slashie thing, he decided to just do what he loves full time: writing and content strategy. He’s based in Cape Town, and can be found at @almackay on twitter.

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