Politics and brand advertising: Is it time to review protocol?

You may have read recently about the Marsh and Parsons ad that was removed by JCDecaux from its OOH sites after advice from the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) that ads “must not unfairly portray or refer to anyone in an adverse way”. The creative, which was the latest in a long series of ads from the estate agent to reference topical issues, featured Theresa May with the words ‘Semi-detached, awaiting planning permission’.

Clever, amusing and current, we were proud of our association with the ad. And when it was removed from some platforms it got me thinking about the way brands participate in the political scene.

In this case CAP’s objection to the Marsh and Parson’s ad was not directly related to politics, but is not all non-partisan political advertising essential personality-driven?

Traditionally brands steer clear of backing any political party or movement, and rightly so as they would risk alienating a vast number of their audience. But at a time when the country’s politicians have been talking about almost nothing but Brexit for more than 30 months, and the whole process has become something of a debacle, I think it is completely fair and reasonable for a brand to jump in with both feet.

It is no longer about Leave or Remain – rather it seems the whole country has become united in their desire to sort out the situation once and for all. They may disagree on how that should be done, but I challenge anyone to say they are impressed by the endless to and fro we are currently witnessing.

So why pull this Marsh and Parson’s ad?

Last week fintech brand Revolut made headlines when it was accused of ripping off a Spotify ad – both of which featured creative that poked fun at the Brexit situation.

Elsewhere The Economist has joined the fun by driving a van asking ‘Tired of going round in circles?’ round Parliament Square for a full day when a major Brexit vote was underway. Granted, The Economist is a major politically focused magazine, but where should the line be drawn?

HSBC and BA have recently put out ads that you could strongly argue are a nod to the Brexit process, though neither have admitted as much.

I believe that when an issue dominates every newspaper, news bulletin, social media feed and dinner conversation as much as Brexit has, it has lost its right to be sacred when it comes to brand ads. And when every TV show that is based on topical satire (and even those that aren’t) can relentlessly poke gentle fun at a public figure, is it not a little old fashioned for an ad to do the same (note the key is in the word gentle – I am not advocating abuse and libel).

Instead, I think a marketer that can come up with a pithy one-liner around the issue, that is in keeping with the brand’s existing creative style and no more offensive than the realms and realms of commentary on the issue in the mainstream press, they are doing something right. They are uniting the country through the notion of a relatable, common experience about which everyone has broadly the same feeling: in this case, fatigue.

At a time when social media means there is very little that cannot, and is not, said in the public domain for anyone to read, should we not be loosening our expectations ever so slightly on brands and their advertising protocol?

By Robin Trust, CEO