Imagine getting angry over a sandwich. When Marks & Spencer launched its LGBT sandwich – basically, your classic BLT with some gay guacamole thrown in – I, along with a list of other LGBTQ commentators, was asked by ITV’s This Morning if I was offended by the sandwich. I wasn’t, and neither were any of the others they asked, so this fixture of daytime television settled on a former associate of David Icke, who proceeded to rant about trans people. How did we arrive at a point where sandwich packaging is debated on daytime TV?
Brands are increasingly flirting with the realm of politics. This week, Lacoste announced it would swap its trademark crocodile logo for 10 limited-edition polo shirts featuring a different endangered species instead; it was soon pointed out that the company was offering “gloves made from deer leather” and “cow leather handbags” online. When police asked McDonald’s to stop selling milkshakes in Edinburgh during a visit by Nigel Farage – following the “milkshaking” of far-right activists – Burger King cheekily announced to the “people of Scotland” that they were “selling milkshakes all weekend”. But has this fast food giant really joined the anti-fascist resistance?
You don’t have to have digested Karl Marx’s Das Kapital to recognise that companies are driven by the profit motive, not changing the world. But can advertising ever have an ethical dimension? According to estimates by the New Economics Foundation thinktank a decade ago, the negative consequences of advertising – from promoting indebtedness to “social and environmental damage” – meant that for every pound of value generated by an advertising executive, £11 worth was destroyed. I doubt their figures have significantly changed since. When brands flash their support for just causes, aren’t they cynically preying on your conscience so you will cough up – a phenomenon known as “woke-washing”?