Protesting and marketing – two communication ideologies on opposite ends of the moral scale, right? One fights for morally just causes in a generally loud way, and the other wants to convince (through rather more subversive tactics) you that you need a new phone to feel fulfilled. They seem uncombinable, yet some companies have gone there.
In recent history, several companies have tried the questionable task of aligning their brand with a broader protester movement. Pepsi is perhaps the most famous example of a brand appropriating a cultural movement. Along with Kendall Jenner, Pepsi attempted to solve racial tensions in the US by encouraging a policeman to drink a can of Pepsi. Did it work? If the result they wanted was outrage with a side of ridicule and a non-apology from Kendall Jenner, then yes! Mission accomplished!
Irony’s Pepsi missed the mark by a few billion light years because it coat-tailed on #blacklivesmatter (and general diversity issues) with the aim of improving their image (and selling more brown sugar water, of course), as opposed to using their considerable marketing budget and brand power to place the protesters’ cause at the forefront. Although, in these crazy times all publicity is apparently good publicity, as PepsiCo stocks rose by 2% after the debacle. Go figure.
Lush #spycops – Protesketing Done Right?
With this, we move onto Lush, a vegan cosmetics retailer that has made headlines with a prostesketing campaign around #spycops – a general term used to describe undercover police officers who infiltrated activist groups in the UK from 1968 onwards. The undercover cops being targeted by Lush had relationships with activists, got married to activists and, in at least one case, had a child with a member of an activist group all while ‘on the job’.
Lush has decorated some of their stores with a campaign titled ‘Paid to Lie’ which uses an image of a man split in two (one-half activist, complete with the requisite beard; the other half a clean-shaven policeman in uniform). The hashtag #spycops can be seen throughout, along with police tape with the words “police have crossed the line”.
Here’s a brief outline of the reasons behind campaign from the retailer themselves:
“Formed in 1968 the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) targeted political activists to gain information on activities such as anti-war demonstrations, social justice campaigns, the animal rights movement, and environmental justice. Police spies befriended and betrayed a vast number of organisations. One method the SDS used for gaining acceptance and access was to develop intimate and long-term relationships with unknowing activists. Those lives infiltrated were often men, but mostly women. Many of these women, who are now campaigning for justice, had never been convicted of [a] crime and still haven’t.”
Coinciding with the in-store campaign is a Lush-hosted podcast in which those who developed relationships with undercover police officers talk about the impact it has had on their lives.
Did Lush Hit their Mark?
Unlike Pepsi’s poorly conceived and product-forward approach to cultural appropriation, Lush has unarguably put considerable thought into this campaign. The #spycops legacy is, however, historical, and some have argued that the use of a modern uniformed officer in the shop window places responsibility on those who have no involvement with such stings. It is, according to the Ché Donald, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, a “poorly thought out campaign and damaging to the overwhelmingly large majority of police who have nothing to do with this undercover enquiry.”
While many have attacked Lush for its sensationalist approach, others have run to their defense, including politicians and leading public figures. Those supporting Lush (in the form of an open letter) have used the campaign as an opportunity to ask the government again for full disclosure of what happened in the undercover operations. In the statement supporting the retailer, the campaigners said:
“Lush has used its facilities to help us as victims press for full disclosure and reform so that this never happens again. This is not an attack on police; it serves to help all those in the police service who wish to uphold the highest standards of policing. For this we thank Lush for its support. We condemn those that have misrepresented Lush[.]”
The inquiry into the operation was due to be published this year; however, according to The Guardian, it will not be published before 2023. There has been no sensitive information released from the inquiry as of yet, and those affected fear that the full scale of the operation will remain unknown.
As for Lush? The retailer has certainly grabbed the public’s attention, resulting in more exposure of a police sting that has been referred to as ‘a violation of human rights.’ Pepsi’s appropriation this is not. And if Lush has any part to play in the full disclosure of the report and subsequent prosecution of those responsible, it will certainly consider this a worthwhile endeavor.
What are your thoughts on Lush’s #spycops campaign? Comment below and tell us if you think it’s simply more cynical marketing or if the retailer has come up smelling of roses.