Earlier this year, P&G brand Pampers put out an advert highlighting its work developing a new nappy specifically for premature babies; “the only premature nappy donated to hospitals”, as the spot proudly announced. Pampers has partnered with a charity called Bliss to develop the P3 – suitable for babies weighing as little as 1.8lb – and is giving away 3 million of them to hospitals around the country.
The advert packed an emotional punch, with footage of premature babies and their parents in neonatal units shown over a stripped-back cover of ‘I’m coming home’, and created quite a stir. In response to accusations of insensitivity, Pampers removed the lyric and emphasised the Bliss partnership.
The advert received a mixed reception here, too. As an agency we’ve been working with purpose-led clients and on purpose-led campaigns for years, but the Pampers approach sparked a bit of a debate. Here, Lindsay and Ben state their cases…
Are brands turning something well-intentioned into something tacky?
You don’t have to look hard for high profile examples – Pepsi’s ill-judged Kendall Jenner effort, perhaps, or the infamous McDonald’s ‘dead dad’ spot. But P&G’s Pampers ad feels like a step too far. It comes across, to me, as a crass exploitation of a harrowing situation; albeit a situation where to be fair to P&G they’re genuinely doing a decent thing.
To look to make coin (indirectly) from this situation makes me feel really uneasy. Am I being too precious? Possibly. Do I need to grow up and accept that nothing is done for free? Probably. But in this instance shouldn’t it be enough for P&G to quietly go about producing these nappies and giving them away to hospitals? For me, that in itself should be their aim on this – to do something human, to help parents at a really scary time and not to look to make a few extra bucks out of it. It should be something they show as an internal company video, to remind the troops of their good work and intentions and demonstrate that P&G can be a brand with a heart. If I were a member of staff and saw this film in that context I’d feel pretty proud of the company I worked for. But they couldn’t let it lie so we now have a tearjerker, with added bonus pack shots, to show us just how purposeful and caring they are.
Pandora’s Box has been opened. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Someone has decided that purpose is ‘the thing’, the rest of us have agreed, and now it’s open season.
To some, Pampers’ use of premature babies in their advertising might feel a bit distasteful and invasive; like turning life and death into commercial advantage. Others seem to appreciate the spotlight being shone on such an important issue. But who’s to say the Pampers ad is any more distasteful than those focusing on organ transplants (AXA), or cancer (Tesco), or third world poverty (Innocent)? Who’s the arbiter of what is and is not an acceptable purpose to leverage?
That’s not to say I agree with it. I tend to the view that purpose should be primarily an internal tool, giving employees a mission to unite behind and serving as the guiding motivation or principle for a business. Engaging with charities and ‘greater good’ activities is great – we’ve called it ‘corporate social responsibility’ for years. And by all means feature it on your website and in your Report & Accounts. But don’t lead your advertising with it.
But we are where we are. For the moment at least, purpose is all. The challenge now is to work out what the rules of this new game should be. And that’s far more easily said than done – as Pepsi, McDonald’s and Pampers would attest.