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28 Oct, 2021 14:13

Cross-dressing ad fiasco shows that advertisers should spare us the tiresome woke sermonising

Cross-dressing ad fiasco shows that advertisers should spare us the tiresome woke sermonising

A controversial John Lewis insurance ad showing a boy in a dress has had to be dropped because it was misleading. Why should marketing execs worry about accuracy when displaying their woke credentials is clearly the priority?

This year’s Christmas adverts are yet to drop but, if current trends are anything to go by, it seems certain that at least one will feature a boy in a dress. Perhaps we’ll see a beaming Santa handing a Coca-Cola to a boy in a dress. Or a culturally diverse family, with a boy in a dress centre-stage, sitting down to a Marks and Spencer Christmas lunch.

British department store John Lewis got in first. Earlier this month, it released a new advert for its home contents insurance which featured a young boy in a dress, high heels and make-up flamboyantly blazing a trail of destruction through his impressively large house, while mum and sister barely manage an eye-roll.

Twix has now jumped on the boy-in-a-dress bandwagon. Its latest Halloween-inspired ad shows our young befrocked hero opening the door to a woman dressed like a witch who declares herself to be his new nanny. Together, they encounter nasty children who point out that “it’s not Halloween yet” or – peak meanness – tell our boy in a dress that he “looks like a girl.” In response, the nanny/witch conjures up a tornado and the bully disappears – perhaps, she suggests, permanently. One conclusion is that death is a legitimate punishment for children who offend.

If the Twix advert doesn’t strike you as odd enough already, here’s something else worth noting: at no point does the two-minute long commercial make any mention of the chocolate coated biscuit and caramel finger. Indeed, no food of any kind, sweet or otherwise, features in this ad. If it wasn’t for the half-second long voiceover announcement, “Twix presents,” there would be nothing at all to connect what we see to the brand.

For today’s advertising execs, getting across woke messaging is far more important than telling us about the product they are promoting. Back in 2019, Gillette decided the best way to shift more razor blades was by telling men they were inflicted with toxic masculinity. Pepsi had Kendall Jenner quelling a potentially violent protest by handing a cop a fizzy drink. HSBC, meanwhile, is waging all-out war on national borders. Brands everywhere have looked to align themselves with Pride or Black Lives Matter.

Getting the right woke messaging is so important it hardly seems to matter whether adverts accurately represent the products they portray. This week, John Lewis has been forced to pull its “Let Life Happen” campaign following a rebuke from the Financial Conduct Authority. It turns out that if a boy destroys his entire house contents while mum looks passively on, it’s not “totally cool because he’s just expressing his gender identity and John Lewis will pick up the bill,” after all. It won’t. In fact, John Lewis home contents insurance only covers accidental damage, not wilful acts of destruction. All those highly paid advertising executives and not one of them thought to check.

It would be easy to think that a few rogue companies have gone off-script when they sign off on adverts that barely feature the product for sale, but dish up cringey woke lectures instead. But this is far from the case. Unlike yesteryear’s chain-smoking, liquor-drinking Mad Men, today’s advertisers are cut from an altogether different cloth. Far from seeing a contradiction between woke-preaching and product-selling, they genuinely believe that getting across woke values is the best way to sell whatever it is they are supposed to be pushing that week. 

Today’s advertising execs think consumers want to be associated with companies that are morally virtuous. They think that when we hand over our hard-earned cash, we don’t want anything as straightforward as a razor blade or a chocolate bar in return; we want to feel good about ourselves too, and the easiest way to achieve that smug sense of virtue is to opt for a woke brand. And they think this, because that is exactly how they themselves act when making purchases. Today’s young professionals are thoroughly woke, and only rarely come into contact with people who are not. So they assume everyone else thinks like them.

And, in some respects, they are not wrong. Nike’s profits soared after the company recruited NFL star Colin Kaepernick as the face of its ad campaign. Kaepernick had attracted controversy for taking the knee at the start of matches (before the gesture became obligatory) and some consumers threatened to boycott Nike as a result. Nike gambled that people’s desire to be associated with Kaepernick and an anti-racist message would triumph – and they were right. 

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Other companies have not been so lucky. In the months following its campaign against toxic masculinity, Gillette’s sales plummeted. Parent company Procter and Gamble was forced to write down the value of the Gillette brand by $8 billion. It seems that men who buy razor blades don’t want to be chastised at the same time. It’s one thing for young professionals to sell aspirational anti-racism to other young people with money to spare for fancy trainers; but when it comes to mass market razors, men want to be spared lectures.

Let’s hope we are all spared the woke sermonising when we turn on the television this Christmas – and the boy in a dress gets to have some time off. No one wants lessons on gender identity rammed down their throat just before Christmas dinner. Advertisers should tell us how great their products are – and leave us to choose our morals for ourselves.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.