In May this year, UK cosmetics firm Lush launched its #Spycops campaign, an open criticism of certain undercover policing practices that occurred in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s. While the UK media continues to keep tabs on the story as an official inquiry gets underway, Lush decided to openly criticise the police with a campaign that included hard-hitting videos, posters, and even police tape across shop windows.

It did not go down well. In addition to the public backlash, there was the industry response, with marketing professor and Marketing Week contributor Mark Ritson calling it “a new low for brand purpose.”

People stand behind brands with a purpose, but those purposes need to be appropriately aligned.
People stand behind brands with a purpose, but those purposes need to be appropriately aligned.

Lush had gone from brand purpose into brand activism, and it did not resonate with a wider audience that knows them for sweet smelling bath products made from natural ingredients.

However, this type of campaign isn’t new for Lush. Many people are unaware that the company supports environmental and animal rights groups involved in direct action both in the United Kingdom and the United States. It has a focus on small grassroots groups with profits from the sale of certain products going directly to funding them.

This is part of its brand DNA and it makes sense: The company bases its entire ethos on sourcing ethically and opposes testing on animals.

With the #Spycops campaign, Lush felt confident it would connect with a far left-leaning base of brand advocates. But like a previous campaign in 2013 that didn’t get as much heat, where Lush called on its customers to fight lethal drone attacks, the firm stepped beyond the area where the wider audience believes it has “permission to speak.”

We “get” that the company would be into animal rights and the environment. This latest move says more about the personal crusade of co-founder Mark Constantine and his political convictions. As Ritson said in his recent piece for Marketing Week, “You sell soap for f***k’s sake.”

The whole debate got me thinking about Colors magazine, the publication from Benetton. A quick potted history for anyone unfamiliar:

Originally a print magazine, it was set up in 1991 by photographer Oliviero Toscani and art director Tibor Kalman. Funded by the retailer Benetton, it never tried to sell products. Instead it had a journalistic remit to focus on social issues and diversity, and it did so through the use of sometimes shocking imagery that was about as far away from brightly coloured knitwear as you could get.

Toscani’s vision informed the retailer’s advertising. He believed advertising should reflect reality and he gave it to us in spades: newborn babies, interracial families, images of AIDS patients on their deathbeds.

It resulted in controversy and headlines — but a scroll through a back catalogue of its advertising campaigns, which start as a riff on the idea of “united colours” and a united world, show how the creative thinking evolved to a point where the company was sued on more than one occasion. Each campaign pushes the boundaries of what’s “safe” a little further each time.

The final straw came in 2000, when Toscani’s “Sentenced to Death” campaign — showing a series of images of death row inmates staring blankly into the camera — prompted murder victims’ families to lobby retailers and consumers. The state of Missouri filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit claiming the pictures had been taken under false pretenses. In the wake of plummeting sales, Toscani was fired.

Last year, he returned to Benetton, along with co-founder Luciano Benetton, to try and reverse the retailer’s flagging fortunes. It would be a shame if the pair tried to relive past (in)glories. The Lush debacle should prove to be a cautionary tale.

Audiences expect brands to act with purpose: 79% of Millennials would prefer to purchase products from a company that operates with a social purpose and 75% are proud to be customers of a company that operates with a social purpose.

But perhaps, where Benetton now feels groundbreaking because it was the first to shock us, we’ve now all “been there done that.” You don’t need to try and make activists out of all of us to sell soap.