Brands & Cultural Appropriation

In a global society are we not simply all just citizens of the world, a diverse collective of individuals, each one of us a beautiful hodgepodge of values, cultures and ancestral roots?

Well if you were to take more than a cursory glance at the state of geo-politics and examine the increasingly divisive language of politicians, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re anything but.

British Prime Minister Theresa May once mooted that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” a damning indictment of multi-culturalism if there ever was one.  In fact, in this fractious global village we all inhabit, it appears that we’ve never been more divided.

It seems that our intrinsic differences, race, gender, religion, are deemed more important than what could and should unite us and this division is being fuelled by a worrying activism from both sides of the political spectrum.

The results of this discordant brand of politics being that we live in a state of constant flux and struggle, each side trying desperately to right the supposed wrongs of the other by extolling the virtues of the ‘other way.’

In short, we’re a polarised people, which forces us to focus in on our differences, questioning our own understanding of identity and what it means to be different rather than reflecting on what might bring us together.

An unhealthy side effect of this has been on one side an increasing intolerance of anything that might be deemed politically incorrect – a term loathed by the right, who criticise ‘snowflakes’ on the left- and on the other the vigorous defence of the freedom of speech and as a by-product, the right to offend.

All of this leaves brands in a very difficult position.  Multi-national companies with a global consumer base by default want to appeal to as many people as possible, regardless of market, with an engaging and consistent message.

And this is where they can get into trouble, where celebration of culture can be misconstrued or interpreted as cultural appropriation, seen as a cynical ploy of an out of touch marketer keen to leverage or borrow equity from culture.

More often than not, the moral outrage stems not from those people who might have a right to find offence in the message, but instead from those hyper vigilant individuals looking for it on their behalf.  And sure sometimes the calling out of crass and clunky misappropriation is justified and necessary, but issues arise where every single cultural nod out of its immediate context is vilified for being ‘problematic’.

To do so is limiting and does more to sow seeds of division than it does to drive an inclusive agenda, which is surely the aim.  The lines, if they remain at all, are not clearly defined and it posits the question as to who are the gatekeepers and moral guardians of what is offensive and what is permissible and what gives those who adopt that role the right to police how others celebrate culture and its influence on others?

For the most part, we are beautiful people with beautiful problems and in the age of the perennially offended social justice keyboard warrior on the one hand and the deliberately antagonistic firestarter on the other, we’re a long way off consensus.

Clearly, brands wishing to play in this space need to tread carefully and allude to culture in an authentic, credible and relevant way.  And yet even when the intention is to do so, see D&G Loves China campaign, it has the potential to horribly backfire.

The risk here becomes that brands, in thrall of the shareholder, become creatively cautious, sanitising messaging lest they offend, abandoning any attempt to talk to their consumers in a meaningful and emotionally resonant way and diverting to function.

Ultimately, it comes down to adopting a common sense approach; expressing a degree of cultural sensitivity by avoiding stereotyping or diluting meaning where it’s important, but celebrating enthusiastically the beauty of diversity in an appropriate and relevant manner.

Frankly, the more offended we are willing to let ourselves become, the more homogenous and culturally uniform a world will we inhabit.  And what could be more boring and narrow than that?

 

Alex Beattie

Senior Consultant

Alex@butterflylondon.com

22.05.18