They say that my blogs are a bit like London buses: you wait ten months for one, and then two come along in the space of three months (or something like that, right?). Anyhow, I’ve been let loose on the blog reins once more, and I’ve decided to use this opportunity to share my thoughts on just some of the ways in which public relations has changed alongside the rise of every millennials favourite topic, political correctness.
So, what *is* political correctness?
First things first; what are we referring to when we say political correctness? Personally, I think a great deal of the issues that arise from using the term derives from the fact that about 90% of people who use it (at least in a derogatory sense) don’t actually know the correct definition themselves (*cough* Piers Morgan *cough*).
In its literal sense, to be ‘PC’, or ‘politically correct’, one would be required to avoid terminology, expressions or phrases that marginalise, exclude or insult any groups who are either at a social disadvantage or discriminated against. For example, language that is considered racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic would be deemed ‘non-PC’.
At the same time, the popular term ‘PC’ – which pretty much translates to ‘don’t be a d*ck’ – has been somewhat weaponised by certain sects of society, who like to use the phrase as an insult, throwing the word ‘snowflake’ around like a metaphorical grenade. For some, the phrase is synonymous with a weakness of character, used to describe those that aren’t seen to be as mentally stable as others.
How has political correctness changed?
Putting it in general terms, to be politically correct one needs to be more tolerant of marginalised groups, and this has changed in the fact that society as a whole has become more accepting. This is not to say that we used to be a completely intolerant nation, or that we are now wholly tolerant, because neither of those statements stand true, but things have certainly improved for the better.
What’s more, political correctness – and being politically correct – is very much on the public agenda. Figures and brands in the public eye have to be careful about what they say and do, as anything deemed as ‘not PC’ will be sure to see them slaughtered by social media users instantly.
Terminology that was once used commonly – and perhaps even innocently by some – is now illegal, and items you used to be able to buy freely in every UK high street are now seen as wildly offensive and a hate symbol for prejudice.
In western society we’ve witnessed a recent rise in movements such as veganism and environmentalism. Whilst these topics don’t strictly fall under the heading of ‘political correctness’, they still engender the same feelings of doing what one feels is right, and for a just cause, and are attacked in the same way that the ‘PC Brigade’ are.
What you end up with as a result, is two groups with opposing ideologies that hate everything about the other: gammons versus snowflakes, if you will.
I could also mention at this point how Brexit has somewhat reversed the positive movement towards political correctness, normalised hate speech and segregation, and torn the country into two divisive factions, but I won’t.
What effect has the change in political correctness had on public relations?
To show that I haven’t forgotten this post is actually meant to be about PR, I’m going to look at how everything I’ve been waffling on about has had an effect on the industry. The first, and most obvious, effect is that brands need to ensure that their content is politically correct and not offensive, or else risk damaging their reputation. Adverts with sexist, racist and homophobic undertones will simply not fly any more, and brands such as Gucci have come under an intense amount of scrutiny and backlash for doing just this recently, and I’ll take a further look at that below (bear with me, this is going places).
As I see it, brands have three choices to make when it comes to political correctness: embrace it and run a campaign about a trending PC topic (Greggs, Gillette et al.); stay middle of the road and ignore it completely; or do something that is overtly un-PC to get people talking and sell a product, but risk f***ing yourself over (Gucci).
The first option has varying levels of success as – while you are tapping into a hot topic – you leave yourself open to criticism, and claims of taking advantage of sensitive issues to increase your brand identity and sell your product. This phenomenon is known as ‘virtue signalling’ which, along with ‘PC-crazed’, is one of Piers Morgan’s favourite buzzwords, and essentially means expressing opinions to show one’s good character.
Actually, my experience suggests that ‘woke’ people are the most intolerant, virtue-signalling, PC-crazed, annoying, abusive & ridiculous creatures on the planet. So on balance, I’d rather be a prick. https://t.co/0PiZ9a1yC8
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) March 21, 2019
The second option is risk and reward free, but means that you stay away from any damaging controversy.
The third option, needless to say, is the one with the highest risk and lowest reward, and there is a lot of debate over whether brands that do this do these stunts on purpose, or by accident or through sheer naivety. The campaigns often get heavily criticised and the products swiftly removed, but a small selection of brands may thrive off the exposure this brings.
Getting it right – Greggs, Vegan Sausage Roll
I won’t go into a wealth of detail on this one, because the PR legend (and brand new Managing Director) that is Shannon has already covered it off in depth. As I mentioned, being vegan isn’t strictly the same as being PC, but as it follows a similar theme and angered Piers Morgan (a useful barometer of whether something is PC or not), I have included it here.
This is one that Greggs managed to get absolutely right; they captured public sentiment and created a product that people actually wanted, without crossing the border into virtue-signalling. They managed to piss Piers Morgan off AND increase their sales by 9.6% following the release of the roll; not too bad if you ask me.
Missing the mark – Gillette, Toxic Masculinity campaign
As the subheading suggests, Gillette somewhat missed the mark with this campaign, and came under heavy criticism for (you guessed it) virtue signalling, despite the ostensibly positive message. In case you haven’t seen it, the advert (which is below) tackles toxic masculinity, and encouraged men to ‘be the best [they] can be’.
The advert itself is actually touching and – in wake of the #MeToo movement – helped to spread an important message. However, Gillette was accused of piggybacking on the campaign in order to sell more razors, whilst not actually having anything to do with stopping toxic masculinity themselves. Predictably, Piers Morgan was pissed about it, and surprisingly others agreed with him.
Personally, I am of the opinion that if campaigns like these contribute to helping just one victim of the causes raised, then it matters not the reason behind the ad, but I can see where the complaints have come from. The company launched an ad in the last week featuring a father teaching his trans child how to shave, which has been received with much more warmth than its predecessor.
“Boys will be boys”? Isn’t it time we stopped excusing bad behavior? Re-think and take action by joining us at https://t.co/giHuGDEvlT. #TheBestMenCanBe pic.twitter.com/hhBL1XjFVo
— Gillette (@Gillette) January 14, 2019
F***ing up and missing the mark by f***ing miles – Gucci & Prada
Gucci rightfully came under criticism a few months ago for a bizarre jumper that seemed to resemble ‘blackface’; a black sweater that came up over the mouth with red lips. The piece was described as tasteless at best, and harmful, offensive and exploitative at worst. Many have questioned whether the faux pas was an intentional move by the fashion brand, seeing as the release of the controversial item aligned with black history month.
A one-off you might accept as a mistake, but Gucci and other highbrow fashion labels have been repeatedly caught up in this sort of controversy. Prada’s “Pradamalia” collection featured a keychain and figures in a shop window that strongly resembled blackface, and was forced to remove the items and apologise. These kind of campaigns guarantee widespread coverage, and brands the size of Prada and Gucci seem to come out of the other end fairly unscathed, which is why so many question whether these acts of controversy are intentional or not. I, for one, struggle to see how these items get through internal approval, which suggests that either stupidity or malice is involved.
If you have made it this far, I suppose you deserve some sort of summary, but I will keep it short. The world is a different place than it used to be and you cannot, and should not, get away with words and actions that would have passed back in the day.
We should all feel responsibility to be better people and make the world a better place, and companies aren’t exempt from that, but they do need to be careful with how they frame their message, as the risk of getting called a virtue-signalling, PC-crazed twerp by Piers Morgan and the like is rather high.