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The art of disagreeing agreeably

In a divided world, can brands play their part in engaging with opposing views?

By creative salon

We're all painfully familiar with just how much social media has fuelled (and then often monetised) toxic debate and given disproportionately loud voices to those previously living on the loony fringes of normal society, or under fairytale bridges.

Twitter/X may have made public discourse more democratic (in the loosest sense of the word) but it's hardly added much to the sum total of human happiness, and has normalised the absolutist polarisation of views.

In this election year, this polarisation and associated anger with anyone who does not conform or adjust to your own preconceptions (and when has anyone been swayed by an argument laid forth on Twitter/X?) looks set to grow further still. Politicians themselves can take some of the blame - 'attack ads' are now a common strategy, with ad hominem criticism the order of the day.

Being able to respectfully disagree is more important than ever. Amid fractious scenes both outside and then inside the Houses of Parliament, Newton's Third Law - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - has been played out too. Witness the ascendancy of (money-spinning) political podcasts from the likes of Alistair Campbell and Rory Stewart, the 'centerist dads' Ed Balls and George Osbourne, and now Baroness Warsi and David Baddiel. All feature people from (ostensibly) opposite sides of the political fence coming together agreeably and reaching consensus.

These podcasts might not make for particularly thrilling listening but they have found a market, showing there is an appetite for reasonable discourse beyond the endless lines of spittle-flecked protestors who have become a daily routine.

So where do brands come in? Conflict and disagreement is an area that few dare to tread - even if others are more than happy to indulge in some culture war posturing.

This spot by BBH for Paddy Power used humour to show the conflict and rivalry between English and Irish racegoers at the Cheltenham Festival:

But it's gentle good-natured stuff that plays along humorously to national stereotypes. The disagreement is clearly rooted in comedy. If only the disarming power of humour could be applied to other aspects of disagreement.

According to David Bain, founding partner at BMB, brands shouldn't involve themselves in consensus too much. "With the greatest respect to Messrs. Stewart and Campbell, agencies and brands should not exercise themselves too much in the art of ‘disagreeing agreeably’," he says. "In fact, rather the opposite. Creativity is a game of consensus and conflict. Ultimately many people need to come together and agree, but there is no harm in doing that ‘disagreeably’ - no shouting, no machismo, no nonsense but strong opinions and strong disagreements harnessed in the service of solving a problem, having an idea or making it better."

However Benedict Pringle, partner at The&Partnership, who has written extensively about advertising and politics, isn't so sure. He says: "In a polarised society, it requires courage for a brand to take a stance on a political issue. However, there are three strategies to mitigate the risk of alienating those who hold differing views. First, exhibit humility and acknowledge that your brand doesn't possess all the solutions. Second, display empathy by showing genuine interest in opposing perspectives when confronted. Third, be clear about why the issue holds relevance to your brand, supporting your stance with tangible examples that demonstrate you genuinely care about it."

This doesn't mean that all brands should take a stand (Unilever's Ben & Jerry ice cream brand was ridiculed in some quarters for a particularly egregious attempt to involve itself in the debate on illegal migration). Pringle counsels: "If the cause is only peripherally related to your brand or if you're unwilling to engage constructively with dissenting voices, it's wiser to remain silent."

Ben & Jerry's also found itself at odds with its owner Unilever in 2021 after its independent board said that it no longer wanted its ice cream to be sold in parts of Palestine illegally occupied by Israelis including the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It was accused of anti-Semitism by the prominent Jewish organisation, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which responded with calls for a boycott of "anti-semitic ice cream".

Theo Izzard-Brown, CSO at Dentsu Creative, thinks that antagonism has driven people to the mainstream - perhaps the antithesis of the original objective. He says: "‘Nobody ever wins a fight’. So utters a freshly stabbed Dalton (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Amazon Prime’s much hyped ‘re-imagining’ of 80’s classic Road House. Over two hours we’re subjected to an unrelenting portrayal of good versus evil; of goodies battering bullies. It possesses all the depth and nuance of cardboard.

"Dross though it is, Dalton’s quip remains spot on. In an age of populism and Manichaean reductivism, it’s not enough to persuade, we’re encouraged to obliterate - even besmirch those whose viewpoints differ from our own. Perhaps that’s why podcasts like The Rest is Politics or Making Sense with Sam Harris have steadily climbed the rankings. They represent a quiet antidote to society’s, even brands’, antagonistic anti-intellectualist discourse.

"Under the banner of ‘disagreeing agreeably’ they seek to celebrate the plurality of thought needed to navigate the day’s complex and ambiguous issues. Their magic ultimately lies in the desire to uncover a path where all win rather than one where someone loses. As the saying goes ‘if you’re shouting, you’re losing’. The real win then is to recognise that disagreement is both healthy and necessary."

Perhaps then, a measured reaction from brands to the conflict and angry protests of an increasingly polarised world (which is likely to only get uglier and more fractious as elections loom into sight) could serve as a lesson to wider society. And this could mean that strident brand activism - which has so often seemed a tenuous path for them to tread - could be on the wane, in favour of a more genuinely inclusive approach that embraces all points of view.

Izzard-Brown concludes: "Whether it’s between a strategist and a creative director or career politicians, opportunities to deepen our appreciation of nuance in pursuit of better work/policies should be roundly embraced."

Will this mean that creative work will become less punchy (as Bain fears)? Not necessarily. But it will hopefully lead to it being better informed and more respectful of those with differing opinions.


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