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.

AnonymousCoward's picture
kat smith's picture

I think that the way they went about this was wrong. You can't just say "Hey, contact me if you're against this, but I'll assume you are for it first." That's ridiculous and unfair. It puts a lot of people in an awkward position of having to take a stance on an issue or enter a conversation that maybe they'd rather stay out of, and I think most brands are well within their right to do that.

But I actually think it's even better when hyper-masculine brand types come out in support of the lgbt community because they are the ones that people most assume would not be. Or at least they perpetuate a lot of the gender norms that make it even more difficult for the lgbt community to live within so if they are showing support, then they are also sending out a message to all of the people that like and buy their products that supporting another person is not a threat to their masculinity.

But there are better ways to do this and it would be awesome to see more companies actually take a stance on it because what this means for the individual is that, in a way, you have a future. One of biggest issues facing lgbt youth, in addition to the daily fears of physical harm or social rejection, is trying to figure out in what context it is "OK" to come out in. If you have to go to work feeling like you can't even talk about your relationships, or your private life at all, it just takes a lot of brain power regulating thought that could be put to good use doing something else.

And because when every time you open a newspaper the stories that you see in this arena are focused all about the suicides, and the political backlash towards this community, it fosters the idea of a hostile world. And that sucks. Lots. And that's not just about the lgbt community but really anybody that finds themselves in a social minority group, which is why as a society we should be progressing towards a future where those kinds of barriers don't exist so that we can be allow the marketplace of ideas to flourish.

So, maybe it wasn't executed in the right vien but the images of support that lit up Facebook over the past few days sent out a surprisingly positive and comforting message that I think a lot of people needed to see. Especially when a lot of social media is filled with the opposite, ( as people are free to air out their hate speech online with very little repercussions. It's frustrating to say the least.

If self-promotion is what motivates these companies to do this, then good. Because at least that means that they feel they are aligning themselves with something that their customers will like. Or, that they are being courageous enough to say we are trying to do the right thing for our employees and for society (at least in my opinion of what "the right thing" is of course). And that's awesome.

This isn't the only cynical message I've seen about this little social experiment, but idk... there's lots of things to be cynical about, but I guess this just isn't one of them for me.

kidsleepy's picture

"So, maybe it wasn't executed in the right vien but the images of support that lit up Facebook over the past few days sent out a surprisingly positive and comforting message that I think a lot of people needed to see."

And that is precisely my point-- you don't know the context in which these images are appearing. Who posted them?

This tumblr site for example, took it upon themselves to create or solicit logos or print that seems in solidarity with the movement-- but it isn't necessarily coming from the brands themselves. If at all. And what's more the creators of the the tumblr site said as much-- implicitly.

A site like this one, however well-meaning, only serves to muddy the waters. I don't want to assume a brand is taking a stance. I want them to either come out and say one way or another, or assume it isn't relevant to their product. I'm sorry to put it in those terms, but I fail to see what certain categories of brands have to do with the issue. Maybe it's me but I really don't care where WD-40 stands on the issue of gay marriage. It just seems very misguided to me. This notion that every last brand is a giant evil corporate entity isn't helping. Chik-fil-a was a great example. Here we are with a company that is supposedly against gay marriage and yet the franchise owners act otherwise. My whole point is, putting this in black and white terms isn't helping. It's trying to simplify the issue for the masses but simplification is as bad as one-sidedness.

I also don't agree that self-promotion equals alignment any more than I agree a company saying it's for 'fair trade' and 'organics' without backing it up with any relevant organizations is substantive. I don't give the benefit of the doubt. Not when companies like Bayer were instrumental in the gassing of Jews during World War Two, when they could have brushed it off as "we were were just 'following orders,' but now we're against it." I'm sorry to put it like that but my point is companies will say and do a lot of things to not upset the bottom line.

My whole point in writing this article was to state the best laid plans of men don't necessarily translate into business. This article wasn't about taking a stand on gay marriage. At all. But it's like if you and I decided North Korea should be pro-Democracy and so we created a North Korean flag super-imposed on the South Korean flag and put it on tumblr and 'assumed north korea was pro democracy until we heard otherwise.' Would that really prove anything? I don't think so.

My larger point is, we are problem solvers. Not every answer to the problem is correct, even if it's with the best intentions as I believe this one is. But I'm not in favor of outcome-based education. It's not enough to say 'well we're trying," any more than it would be okay if we did mediocre advertising for any brand. We must challenge ourselves and push ourselves to really solve problems. Otherwise, we're part of the problem y half-assing it.

I also believe when it comes to these kinds of issues, mass communication and over-simplification, does not work. At the end of the day, if you want people on your side, you have to convince them one person at a time.

Tim Geoghegan's picture

The issue at hand the right to liberty, period. So nobody should have an issue with their brand being used to celebrate equality.

Brands and corporations get away with spreading culturally invasive messages far and wide. They can't have the conversation one way, asserting pressure only to sell, affecting culture. They need to have a responsibility to stand for something from the core of who owns them, to their corporate behavior to their messaging.

The blog a) assumed brands supported. Stated b) brands could ask to have it removed, under assumption they did not support - or they could leave a message - any message - as to why it was removed.

To claim brands or corporations are 'neutral' in regards to affecting culture - and especially government policies - is naive.

kidsleepy's picture

I want to say this first in case this becomes a tl;dr post: Make no mistake, I love your idealism. I love the drive and the belief to try and change corporate society. I just don't buy in to it.

Not all brands are neutral, obviously. But we have enough lobbyists on K street already and I do not want more than is already there. Indeed, I want less.

I can understand if brands with a specific cultural tie want to take a stand in certain cases. And in certain cases it would make sense. If Newman's Own or Tom's take a stand, it's because it was built into their brand DNA. To try and attaching societal, moral or political DNA to brands that don't have it already ingrained, or to culturally innocuous brands is either ludicrous or faulty.

Coke says it's for polar bears and we jump down their throat because of greenwashing and destroying the environment.
Every October, bands swathe themselves in pink and people call bullshit on it, because what does Vavoline have to do with breast cancer.

Do you see what I'm saying?

Here's something else: As you said, advertising spreads culturally invasive messages. Very true. The majority of which attempt to persuade people to buy by promising us things that cant be delivered at best, or are outright lies at worst. So knowing a brand communication is built on shaky ground already, why on earth would i believe their ethical political or social stance?

Besides, any brand can do this just to look good. Greenwashing and cultural philanthropy are pejoratives that have entered our lexicon for this very reason. It's easy enough for a brand to call itself "All natural," when they're not. This only leads to feel-good fakery. So what does it prove?

The point is, if we are mistrustful of brand advertising so much so that Adbusters makes a living calling brands out, then why should we believe a brand when it takes a social stand/ How much does it really mean if a brand holds up a solidarity first? I truly think you are attaching way too much hope and good faith to corporate society in general.

And I also see the flaws to it, too. Take the video game brand perpetuating violence in society being used to celebrate marriage equality on the blog. That's one hell of a mixed message to send, which is why I am dubious at best.