Cannes Ad Fest 2019: Authenticity connects

One of the big themes to have emerged from the Cannes Lions so far is the need for brands to be authentic in communication. In an attempt towards purpose-led authentic advertising, brands are resorting to pink washing.

Pink washing is the pseudo-progressiveness that brands adopt to connect with millennials. These campaigns, depicting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, are self-serving and do nothing to change the lives of the people shown in the advertising.

First coined by the US-based activist organisation Breast Cancer Action — to identify firms that claimed to be supporting women suffering from the disease while actually paying only lip service to the cause — pink washing came up frequently during sessions at the ongoing Cannes festival.

This is hardly surprising to me, since brands need to understand their sphere of influence and how relevant they can be to their consumers when they take up cause-marketing. Agencies need to step up their game here, even as clients insist on something that is clearly in fashion.

It may be great from a corporate perspective to espouse a cause. However, from a brand’s point of view, an agency — responsible for the company’s communication — may need to first understand how credible it is to pick up the issue.

A counter to pseudo-progressiveness by brands is ‘Ugly Sells’, a concept that banks on realism and authenticity. People today love memes, videos and communication that are raw and real. The underlying thought here is that pretty things lack genuineness and therefore can’t be trusted.

I found the concept resonating across shortlisted campaigns displayed at the Palais this year. A Burger King campaign, in particular, caught my attention. It shows 'authentic' McDonald's-themed birthday parties in the US, replete with the brand's clown mascot holding a ‘real’ child crying loudly.

The child is clearly unhappy with the party and wishes to get rid of the clown, albeit with little success. Burger King steps in, subtly advertising its clown-free parties, saying: “Birthdays should be happy”.

While the campaign targeted young kids and their parents, I think the overall theme of authenticity is perfect when speaking to millennials, an important target group for most brands. Most millennials are tech-savvy, conscious of their surroundings, and are quick to see through make-belief. A dose of authenticity, then, can make the crucial difference for this target group to either connect or disconnect with brands.

Let’s be clear: no consumer wants to be sermonised. If brands can do something to help consumers genuinely improve their lives, it will go a long way in building a life-long connection between the two.

As adman David Droga said during a packed session on Tuesday — the real wealth of agencies is relevance. I hardly disagree with that. 

The author is group chairman and chief executive officer of FCB India

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