The Brand Equality Social Experiment is over. What did we learn?

Just a few days after it launched, the Brand Equality Tumblr site is done with its "social experiment." Which, by the way, was a phrase I wish never entered our lexicon. It sounds like another way of saying "psychologically messing with your minds." Semantics, right? Perhaps Humpty Dumpty was right in saying "When I use a word, it means whatever I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less." But when I hear "Social Experiment," I think of manipulation. Which is what I hate most about this career.

Anyway. In just a few days, while justices were actually hearing the case, the site and its creators and followers (and detractors) went through many declarations and misinterpretations. Many an avatar was changed. Many clarifications, articles, tweets and pontifications were written. And now, what have we learned?

Perhaps the people who made the tumblr site learned something. They certainly wanted us to learn something. And brands, too. But I don't know that "we" learned anything, as a society or a collective or a group of people who work in advertising. Or at least not anything we didn't already know if we took the time to examine the experiment's components.

The stated intention of Brand Equality was to "start a conversation" about brands people love and how they should take a stand on such important issues. The site (its words being paraphrased here) would assume to think that each corporation was supporting Equal Marriage and post a brand logo messed with in solidarity. Then brands would have the opportunity to either chime in their support, ignore it. Or ask to have it removed, whereupon the site would assume that it was not pro equal marriage rights, or neutral.

They forgot being contacted with a cease and desist for logo infringement. I know, that pesky law again, right? In which case, it would be presumed they are either not part of the sharing is caring crowd, and anti-marriage rights, or not part of the freehadist movement and neutral on marriage equality.

Anyway. the Tumblr site lamented the sad fate of its "social experiment." How they were portrayed as unfairly as "shaming," by Mashable.

From the Brand Equality tumblr site:

1st, we think it’s important to point out that this Tumblr was not meant to be – nor ever stated to be – ‘shaming’ brands into having to take a stand (as one writer had mislabeled it). It was meant to be celebratory; to celebrate love and equality by showing people’s favorite brands supporting it. If a brand was against Marriage Equality, we’d post that we wished they were for it. Or we’d replace the image with a statement on their stance (ie; neutral).

This is either extremely naive in its thinking, or so incomplete in its thinking that black hole sized logic gaps are sucking up the internet even as we speak. Spoiler alert: I'm going for the latter.

First of all, acting so shocked--shocked! that someone would use link bait to get eyeballs on their post is silly. That is, unless they're brand new to the internet or journalism in general. Mashable (and Huffpo Buzzfeed, et al.) needs to up its click-thru rate and make some cash off of ads, so they make controversial headlines to get people to read and click. Sorry if that's too cynical, but it's as true as it is obvious. These are businesses we're talking about here. Corporations. Brands, if you will. And we don't even know where they stand on gay marriage! We only know they're smarmy. Which brings me to my second point:

Take the image accompanying this article and found on the tumblr site. This is a real post from the makers of a violent video game. A game many parents find objectionable when it comes to their kids wanting to play it. Despite "brand loyalty," among gamers. Now seriously-- does it really make you all warm and squishy inside to know Ubisoft, the makers of Assassin's Creed (and Far Cry, and other such violent games) is a supporter of gay marriage? Are you aware the amount of violence the LGBT community has had bestowed upon them?

Or how about Bud Light? since they're so down with gender equality we can assume they're above making a misogynist or homophobic joke, right? Or how about the Tobacco industry? Sellin' smokes and lyin' about carcinogens since forever ago. Would it make you feel better to be addicted to Parliaments, knowing they're okay with gay marriage?

Do you see how this shows incomplete thinking?

So. Let's step away from the more controversial brands for a second. Even if you are presuming in all innocence and well-meaning to assign a belief system to a brand, you are A. assigning a belief system to a brand and B. being presumptive. Not to mention intrusive. I won't bring up religion here except to point out the fact that fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Muslims, aren't exactly embracing the subject matter; no doubt there are at least one or two heading up companies. What to do then? And more importantly, what do you expect people to do once they know?

As an aside, does anyone remember how Chik-Fil-A's sales went up amid list year's Same Sex Marriage controversy? Which now had at least one local franchise giving away chicken biscuits for Gay Marriage Supporters? What the hell do you do with that brand?

Demanding a corporate entity profess its stance on gay marriage, makes me also ask what's next? What is vaseline's stance on abortion? How about Peanut Chews and Gun rights? Is Kotex liberal or conservative? Really, why stop, right? For one reason, the idea that transparency trumps privacy, when it comes to a brand stance is pretty half-baked.

Put another way: If Starbucks takes a pro-gay marriage stance then the CEO is speaking for the company, as an abstract entity. The CEO does not speak for everyone employed by Starbucks. And nor should he.

I am perfectly happy to take the intention of Brand Equality at face value as they certainly went out of their way to clarify their intentions. They want to know where their brands stand. And good for them. Because god knows there were a lot of people (and brands, most notably ad agencies) that were more than happy to jump on the bandwagon this week (and do some self-promotion in the process.) This last particular act, by the way, was something I didn't even bother to bring up in this article as I think we can all agree, it's transparently despicable.

But before anyone else conducts their next "social experiment" I hope they'll think twice about going about it this way. Even if brands were to say "yes" after you assumed the answer for them already, you'll never know whether they're being sincere. And then what's next? You have to demand how sincere they are. *Cough* Greenwashing. *Cough.*

It's important to remember one last thing: Whether it's demanding a brand positioning, or from an individual employee, as much as you want to, you can't legislate thought any more than you can coerce it. It's not yours to legislate or coerce.

What you-- what we can and hopefully will do is find a better way to get people talking next time.