Question of the Week
Busting Taboos: How Brands Are Leaning In To Controversy To Reshape Culture
More and more brands are changing the conversation around taboo subjects
31 October 2023
In the ostensibly progressive 21st century, societal taboos persist, restricting open discourse on certain topics. Nevertheless, pioneers like Dove, with its 'Real Beauty' campaign, and Bodyform's 'Blood Normal,' which discarded the conventional blue liquid depiction of menstrual blood, have shattered barriers in women's health.
These brands are at the forefront of a bold movement within advertising that fearlessly confronts once-taboo subjects, ranging from dismantling period stigma to addressing sexual health and diversity.
This audacious approach seeks to challenge outdated depictions of modern life, offering a more authentic, inclusive, and health-centric perspective. And it's a trend that resonates with consumers, proving not only socially impactful but also financially lucrative for marketers.
As brands continue to contribute to a more progressive societal narrative, they play a pivotal role in reshaping cultural norms and fostering a more enlightened and accepting collective consciousness. In recent years, a notable transformation has taken place surrounding previously taboo topics such as male and female incontinence, breastfeeding, sexual health over 50, gut health, impotence, and domestic violence and abuse.
This shift is unmistakable, with humour and creative language becoming increasingly prevalent in addressing discomforting subjects. It serves a dual purpose: it not only facilitates a more relaxed atmosphere but also enables the audience to feel at ease when engaging in conversations about these often-sensitive subjects.
So how can agencies help build clients' brands by busting taboos? Who is innovating in this ever-changing space and what challenges are posed between agency and client when creating such campaigns? We ask the agencies doing just that.
Margaux Revol, strategy partner, AMV BBDO
I don’t know if ‘breaking taboos’ is necessarily the magical recipe for building a brand or any brand. Or that brands can build themselves solely around breaking taboos.
But breaking taboos in the right way and for the right reasons can help a brand be more relevant to their audiences.
A lot of people think that our campaign Bloodnormal, which showed period blood for the first time in advertising, was simply about changing the blue liquid to red and was using shock tactics. But we did much more than that. We manifested a normality that was nowhere to be seen, using beauty and rich creative expressions to make women+ finally stop feeling disgusting, and men disgusted. And this normality was, at the time, revolutionary.
It truly created a trend in the industry for showing things ‘the way they are’. But it strikes me that the most successful examples of ‘breaking taboos’ are when it is done based on authentic tensions and radical empathy. You need to know what you’re subverting, how it’s been limiting people so far, and how to transform it creatively. What will make people feel suddenly understood, seen or even relieved?
Viva la Vulva is an example of that too. On a surface level, it looks like a crazy vulva party. But it came from a much darker place. A place where women completely ignored this part of their body, or felt terrible about it, thinking it looked hideous, wrong, “ugly as fuck”… and sought to change it or completely disassociated with this part of their body.
So, we wanted to create the most diametrically opposite feeling.
And we felt that it would take nothing but a radically creative, batshit crazy vehicle. Something that could dynamite the shame so powerfully, there would be place for self-knowledge and self-love again. So yes… singing vulvas!
And then from Viva la Vulva to Wombstories, anthropomorphising the womb with little womb-dwellers to express the complex relationships we have with them, or Periodsomnia, shining a light on the darker experiences of periods that happen at night, it’s been a journey full of broken taboos, but more crucially, a journey of rich listening to how women+ are feeling and what creative representations can open for them in how they relate to their own bodies and experiences.
Breaking taboos shouldn’t just be literal, or an excuse to do surface representations. Breaking taboos is not a recipe, or a genre, and it should never be a replacement for creativity.
It must come from authenticity, from an ethos of radical empathy, always start by listening to people to make them feel understood in ways no one has before. The novelty isn’t so much in what you’re showing. It’s in how you’re making people feel. What door you can find in their minds that they didn’t know even existed. And blow it down for them.
When Caitlin Moran said that ‘Viva la vulva’ made her ‘want to buy a second fanny’, it meant exactly that: If you think we started from a place where most women didn’t even want their own vulva, ending up in a place where some of them want two, the results are pretty amazing.
Natalie Chester and Emelina Nyqvist, strategy directors, Ogilvy
Taboos are protected by a simple fact: they’re uncomfortable to talk about. Which makes us reluctant to address them. But some taboos mask serious, sinister societal problems. They give discrimination, inequality, and stigmas a dark place to hide in plain sight - which is why we need to break them.
What's devilishly sly about them is that they are entrenched in our beliefs about the world. Challenging those beliefs means confronting them, which brings our own emotional biases to the fore. And will always be met with some resistance, as most people have a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Breaking a taboo by its very nature carries risk.
It means not just putting a spotlight on an issue, but finding a way to break through the awkwardness and reframe the discomfort into something far more accessible. For Ogilvy’s Relate campaign, this meant confronting the rise in sexually transmitted infections amongst the over 65’s with humour. For the ‘Mayor of London’ it meant giving young men a way to interrupt misogynistic behaviour with a simple word that drew on the existing language of friendship.
If it solves a real problem, breaking a taboo is an intelligent risk worth taking.
Pete Bardell, co-founder, Revolt
At Revolt, we believe in getting down and dirty with issues that really matter in the world. It means we know how to handle the topics that turn cheeks red in the world of marketing.
Cue the poo taboo.
We worked with The Gut Stuff on their mission to democratise the life-changing magic of gut health. Even though 86% of us have had gut issues in the last 12 months, 1 in 5 people feel more comfortable discussing Brexit than their bowels.
Why does this matter? Because every ‘number two’ reveals important clues about your gut health. By breaking the poo taboo, we could tackle a serious issue, bake in scientific advice, and make everyone pay attention. Here are three things we learned along the way.
Humour is your secret weapon
Purposeful brands don’t need to be bland. Especially when our media is full of a bloated middle ground of safe, increasingly homogenous campaigns. Break through mediocracy with the nitty gritty, but use humour to disarm, entertain and amplify.
It takes guts to run advertising that could be banned
Undeterred by ASA murmurings about potential complaints or ad removal, we plastered pink poos across UK bus stops. Our creative asked passersby, “How do you poo?”, to encourage more people to think about gut health.
Guess what? We got two whole complaints. Turns out the UK public can take a joke.
Strategy about poo, penises and periods pays back
The “provocative” stuff is what gets people talking, driving increased brand distinction and memorability. 300% revenue growth for The Gut Stuff is a testament to that.
Beyond rocket fuelling growth, the greatest gift of this kind of strategy is to provide marketers with the confidence to be bold, showing that often the bigger risk is not taking that risk in the first place.
Taboos prevent people talking and seeking help. This is why they need breaking. And why sh!t strategy takes guts.
Bruno Carramaschi, senior strategist, MSQ
When developing new campaigns, brands often find safety in numbers.
However, when tackling a taboo topic, such confidence is rare. Clear statistics aren’t always available to guide the way. Therefore, brands must dive deeper into conversations and understand cultural nuances, paying attention to what people might be feeling or thinking but aren't openly saying.
After identifying a taboo, for the message to be effective and drive sales, a clear connection between the taboo and the brand or product category is essential. Consider Replens as an example. We’ve identified that a portion of the audience felt that they were too old to enjoy intimacy, and thus didn't see the need for the product. Challenging that was crucial to grow the brand.
Tackling a taboo doesn’t come without its risks. If the approach is inconsistent with how the audience sees the brand, the approach can backfire. Discovering Anusol’s true brand perception on Amazon reviews was key for us to unlock a humorous campaign and give us confidence it was the right approach.
When done right, breaking taboos can yield incredible results: capturing attention, fostering stronger connections with consumers, igniting societal conversations, and increasing sales.
Loren Cook and Bronwyn Sweeney, creative directors, MullenLowe
For Persil, stains are a sign of life and yet there is one that all laundry brands have ignored: period stains.
For half the population, periods start around 12 years old and don’t stop for the next 40 years. Stains are a common occurrence for anyone who menstruates. But despite being one of the most common stains, 72% of people who bleed feel embarrassed about them.
Working with Persil, we didn’t just want to wash away the stain, we wanted to wash away the taboo. So we created a campaign to do just that.
Guided by a female-led production team, we invited anyone menstruating to be part of our shoot. Over three days, our cast bled into garments. The result was an intimate portrayal of menstruation in all its shapes, flows and contexts across different fabrics and experiences.
Our images sparked online conversations and prompted people to share their own personal stories of period stains. We selected twenty stories that reflected both how nuanced and natural stains can be and printed them in a book along with our images.
Outdoor print ads and an exhibition spread the reach of the campaign further to ensure the taboo was truly washed away.