Brands have long wanted to tell us what to do: what clothes to wear, what food to eat, what car to drive. But lately, with the urge to appear ‘worthy’ and ‘good’, they seem to want to get involved in the more emotional aspects of our lives too, even suggesting how we should parent our kids. And, frankly, it’s becoming rather annoying.
The vogue for ‘advertising for good’ is likely here to stay. Put cynically, there is money to be made and awards to be won in appearing noble – whether by shouting about being sustainable or creating a piece of product design that saves lives (while selling cars) – and it makes us feel better about advertising.
But there is discomfort to be found whenever a company aims to emphasise its ‘good’ qualities to sell consumer goods, and this uneasiness reaches screaming point when brands start taking it upon themselves to offer us advice about how we should live our lives and treat those around us.
Over the last year, there has been a spate of advertising based around feminism, with the Always film Like A Girl – a powerful mini documentary highlighting the unpleasantness of the phrase – proving the most successful, picking up millions of views online and accolades across the ad industry. It is hard to disagree with Like A Girl’s message, though recently this tendency for brands to tell us what we should think has extended into other, even more personal territories, particularly parenting.
A new ad campaign for Fairy Non Bio, titled Learning To Hug, tells the story of father and son Stephen and Ben, and chronicles how over the years their once-close relationship cooled and physical contact ended, the hugs replaced with handshakes. We then see them reconnect on screen, before the ad’s tagline Never Stop Hugging appears (which we are, of course, encouraged to tweet with a hashtag).
This spot follows another recent TV campaign from Nescafé Gold Blend, which appears to chastise a mother for working on her computer when she could be playing with her son. Accompanying the TV spot are a series of posters, with finger-wagging taglines such as ‘Home time, on time’ and ‘You can’t email a hug’.
Within the saccharine tone of both campaigns is a message, but unlike the straightforward directive of Like A Girl – ‘stop using this expression, it is damaging’ – Fairy and Nescafé are vague, and passive aggressive. These brands want to remind you what is important in your life (your family, of course!) but also somehow want to shoehorn their products into this too, and the only way they can achieve this is by adopting a rather preachy tone. There is nothing particularly new to tying a brand to family life – brands from McDonald’s to John Lewis have ploughed this furrow for years, very successfully. But what sets this work apart is the advisory tone, the suggestion that without these brands’ advice, we would all be lost, parenting wildly and forgetting to cuddle our children.
If the Like A Girl film is empowerment advertising, these ads from Nescafé and Fairy could be categorised as guilt advertising, an extra nagging voice in the parental day, telling us that we’re not quite doing enough or doing it right. I realise the brands and the ad agencies that created the ads don’t mean it this way (I can only imagine the kind of ‘brand insights’ that led to these spots – ‘coffee gives you the time to reflect on what’s important’, perhaps or ‘Fairy makes your clothes soft, soft enough to hug’, maybe) but like advice from that overly helpful in-law, it all comes across as a bit judgemental. And, really, no parent needs any more of that, especially not from an instant coffee brand.