On a cosy stage in the Southbank Centre, London, sit singer-songwriters Billy Bragg and Tom Robinson, comedian Phil Jupitus and politicised rapper Akala; they have been brought together at the ‘Being a Man’ festival to debate masculinity in the 21st century. Conversation turns to Tom Robinson’s protest activity on behalf of the LGBT community and, specifically, his angry reaction to The Gay News being found guilty of blasphemous libel in 1977. His hit song ‘Glad To Be Gay’ pointedly addressed this and was subsequently banned by the BBC.
Nearly 40 years later and Russia has passed “gay propaganda” laws that have provided a controversial political backdrop to this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. In the past, it took people like Robinson and Bragg to protest against such laws; however, in recent months, brands have taken up the fight in a form of ‘protest marketing’.
As the Olympics kicked off, a number of brands, such as The Guardian, changed their logos to include the rainbow spectrum associated with the LGBT community, in order to show solidarity. Most notable was Google’s doodle, which included an evocative line from the Olympic Charter stating that all sport must never be subject to “discrimination of any kind”.
Likewise, Channel 4 – in typically rebellious fashion – changed their logo and, what’s more, released a fantastically surreal and ostentatiously camp advert wishing luck to everyone out in Sochi. “Good luck gays, on gay mountain” sings the scantily clad cabaret singer.
The piece was also used to promote the channel’s documentary ‘Hunted’ about the physical abuse of homosexuals in Russia. Similarly, other brands have used the issue to promote their image and products; for example American Apparel launched a clothing range called ‘Principle 6’ named after the non-discrimination clause set out in the Olympic Charter. Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, clothing brand XXL have released an advert featuring legendary male Norwegian athletes trying in vain to impress a beautiful woman who ends the film by kissing her girlfriend.
It is easy to be cynical and argue that this use of marketing is an insincere attempt to create positive PR and merely play on what is in the public consciousness. Contextual marketing, after all, is very in vogue; one only has to think of the hordes of brands that rushed headlong to congratulate Will & Kate on the birth of their son, Prince George.
On the other hand, while a protest song by the likes of a Billy Bragg may have more of a deep emotional impact, it is impossible to deny that the reach of these brands is incomparably large and the content they have created has been seen, shared and discussed by millions (we are doing it right now!). Surely that is a positive thing and overall can only help the continuing shift of attitudes towards the LGBT community.
So what impact does this concept of protest marketing have upon domestic sponsorship? In the UK the obvious place where discrimination still resides is unfortunately football; this is evident in the fact there are no current professionals who are openly gay, as well as the number of well documented player/fan racism incidents in the last few years.
Personally, I would argue that league, club and cup sponsors have the ideal platform to use the sort of protest marketing we have seen over the course of Sochi 2014 to promote equality. Campaigns such as this will not only strengthen a brand’s persona but, if done well, create widespread discussion.
Take for instance, the partnership between Paddy Power (sponsor of Arsenal FC among other clubs) and charity Stonewall, which saw them send rainbow laces to every professional footballer in the UK. The campaign – Right Behind Gay Footballers – resulted in 72,000 tweets using the #RBGF, which Twitter says made a total of 101 million impressions.
It must be said that the campaign was marred by a degree of controversy as some clubs refused to allow their players to wear the laces due to a lack of consultation and rival sponsorship deals; however, these issues, with more thought and the right sponsor, could be traversed in the future. What’s more, the controversy only seemed to heighten the press coverage and debate.
Therefore, in conclusion, protest marketing has the ability to show a brand’s solidarity with a discriminated-against section of society and catalyse the conversations necessary to have any degree of real change. If in the process a brand also draws attention to their own positive and attractive values it’s a win-win strategy. Whether inspired by a singer-songwriter or a brand, it is people who are the real agents of change… So go ahead and share that Channel 4 ‘Gay Mountain’ advert on Facebook and retweet the Google doodle: you have the power to keep the discussion alive.
By James Masters on February 21st, 2014
Tags: Advertising, Ambush Marketing, Blogging, Brand marketing, Communications, Creative, Football Sponsorship, Olympic sponsorship, Olympic sponsorship consultants, Olympic sports, Olympics, Public relations, Sochi 2014, Social Media, Synergy, Winter Olympics