Fight For Your Rights!
The essence of what makes really good communication has not changed much over the years – we want interesting ads with stopping power, that make us think, communicate a relevant brand message, make us feel some sort of emotion and that stay in our memories. These days we are quite used to advertising that has a side-dish of social economics whether it be about protecting the environment or a message of anti-discrimination or nuclear war. However it was not so long ago that it was inconceivable for a social or political messages to be intermingled with that of a serious fashion brand – certainly any brand that wanted to make money. The fashion advertising industry generally steered well clear of anything that was deemed too socially active or god forbid , ‘political’. It was not really until the mid 80s when HIV and AIDS was discovered to be rife in the music and fashion scene, that influential companies decided it was time for a change in their image and likewise their advertising. Those who had the guts, decided it was time to dig a little deeper and use their influence to help spread a message of peace, awareness and acceptance through mainstream media.
A number of brands decided to channel an ethical message for good through through their campaigns which would go out on TV, radio, billboard (or even on the front of a T-shirt). In the face of governments that didn’t seem to give a damn about the poorer classes or listen to a word young people said (remember the UK had a Tory government throughout the 80’s and 90’s, and the U.S had a Republican Bush administration throughout the 80’s and again in the 2000’s) – it’s not surprising that creative companies stepped up to the plate when they did and took on the role of educator to the masses. If at times that meant shocking the public to their very core, then so be it. At least they provoked debate where there was none and opened up minds that otherwise may have remained closed. Here we salute 5 pioneering brands (with one newcomer) who were seminal to making changes in popular culture forever. Check them all out here below.
Katherine Hamnett founded her label in 1979 after graduating from Central St Martins. She is quite possibly the UKs most ethical designer who has always had a strong political point of view to express through her designs. Her oversized T-shirts with large block letter slogans were one of the biggest trends of the 80s, favoured by pop stars such as Wham!, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Queen. Roger Taylor of Queen wore a “WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW” shirt during their historical appearance at the first edition of the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil which helped to start the world-wide trend for expressing how you feel on your T-shirt.
In 1984 NME journalist and founder of ZTT Records Paul Morley designed a series of “Frankie Says” T-shirts to promote Frankie Goes to Hollywood which have become a became an immediate design classic. “Frankie Says No War!” were very prominent at the time plus of course the infamous “Frankie Says Relax”.
Slogan T-shirts have enjoyed a huge renaissance in the last decade, both in the late 90s and again recently, as 80s fashion is constantly reinterpreted and enjoyed by new generations. House of Holland for example released a series of Hamnett-esque T-shirts in the mid 2000’s that winked in admiration at others in the fashion industry with slogans in nu-rave neon colours such as “Do Me Daily Christopher Bailey” and the inspired “Flick Yer Bean For Agyness Dean”. Or see how last year Jay-Z released via Rocawear his “Occupy Wall Street / All Streets” Tees. All owe a debt to Hamnett!
However Hamnett latterly expressed doubt over whether slogan T-shirts actually achieved anything and felt too many people wear them as a substitute for positive action. Not afraid to put her money where her mouth is she terminated most of her licensing agreements when she became disillusioned with laws protecting sweatshop workers and pesticide poisoning in cotton growing regions. She re-launched her line in 2005 under far stricter ethical guidelines for the manufacturing and agricultural industries. There are very few designers like Katherine Hamnett left who are brave enough to point out the glaringly unjust issues that are so prevalent in fashion. In 2011 she was awarded a CBE in London for services to the fashion industry.
United Colours of Benetton
Benetton was established in 1965 but it was not until the early 90s that they made their mark on the popular consciousness by creating advertising that was truly groundbreaking and shocking. If there was a Damien Hirst of the fashion scene at the time, you could day it was Benetton.
Throughout the 80s they always made a point to feature models from every race; black, white, Indian, Asian and mixed race. Their celebration of race and multiculturalism meant their name “United Colours of Benetton” took on a deeper meaning far beyond their actual colourful products.
In 1991 they decided to step into a new artistic arena and hired photographer Oliviero Toscani to create what became one of the most controversial ad campaigns in history. The images were unrelated to any specific product and were simply about Benetton making a point. The most shocking for many was that of an unwashed bloodied baby that had just been pulled out of its mother, umbilical cord still attached – in the UK it received the most complaints in history. Further images of a black stallion mounting a white mare, a priest and nun seemingly about to kiss, inmates on Death Row and close ups of tattoos reading “HIV positive” all raised eyebrows and got Benetton the attention they desired while sticking the proverbial finger up to anyone with a small-minded, bigoted or right-wing leaning.
Benetton have continued to fight for inequality and in 2011 they created the UNHATE foundation, inviting world leaders and everyday people to combat the culture of hatred and discrimination.
In their usual ballsy fashion, Benetton pushed it to the absolute extreme with mocked-up pictures of world leaders kissing each other full on the mouth – as in Chinese Premier Hu Jintao kissing US President Obama. They also released an image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing the head of the Egyptian Mosque Ahmed Mohamed el Taveb but that particular picture got pulled after the Vatican threatened legal action – but of course the desired effect had already been achieved.
Their latest campaign for spring summer sees 9 models – or “ambassadors” – chosen for their fight against prejudice and multicultural heritage such as Lea T, a transsexual Brazilian model.
Despite being late to the fight against racism, (MTV famously didn’t play any black artists until finally Michael Jackson broke through with Billie Jean), it’s fair to say that they have made up for lost time and are now well-known for their social activism.
In 1992 they launched Choose or Lose, encouraging kids to go out and use their vote. It is estimated they helped motivate up to 20 million people – they also personally backed Clinton – and he got in. In 2008 they aired presidential commercials for the first time, leading right wing Republicans to complain that “MTV serves as the Democrats main youth outreach program”. (Damn right!)
Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, MTV promoted annual campaigns known as Fight For Your Rights, with the slogan “Speak Out/Stand Up Against Violence,” to bring forth awareness on America’s crime, drugs and violence issues.
In 2005 they launched a pro-social initiative called Think MTV about creating programs that encourage people to talk about and take positive action against issues that are negatively affecting themselves, friends or those around the world. The Think MTV icon was integrated into all relevant on-air programs, driving people to useful resources online where they could educate themselves and meet other people similarly affected. Think MTV addressed twelve major issues across a broad spectrum (ensuring that their whole audience will be able to relate to at least one or more): discrimination, environment, politics, health & self, crime & violence, poverty & disease, human rights, war & peace, relationships & sex, faith, substance abuse, and education.
People may complain that there is not enough music on MTV anymore and that it has been taken over by reality TV crap – definitely true – but at least in that reality TV mix there is some decent programing showing the fight against discrimination and educational messages about the importance of voting. It’s thanks to young people (of every race) going out and voting that Barack Obama got that key second term. The importance of young people using their vote in America cannot be stressed enough and nobody can argue that MTV haven’t helped for the better in that respect.
The Body Shop
The Body Shop was way ahead of its time thanks to its founder Anita Roddick who was always a very vocal and passionate supporter of animal rights and the environment and really put her money and her entire business policy where her mouth was. She also fought to change traditional perceptions of what beauty is, using unconventional models and indigenous tribes people in The Body Shop advertising. The press loved her for her outspokenness and for the fact she was this apparently fearless woman, openly challenging the cosmetics industry as a whole and the hugely powerful pharmaceutical companies funding it who were often known for their shady and intimidating tactics. Roddick never seemed phased by any of it and the press loved her for it, she was a regular feature of the news in the late 80s throughout the 90s.
The Body Shop introduced a pioneering social audit programme called Community Fair Trade in the mid-1990s, where they committed to only trading with communities in need and give them a fair price for natural ingredients or handcrafts they purchase from these often marginalized countries – which bigger companies were only too happy to take advantage of. Many of the products key ingredients were taken from here, such as sesame seed, marula and coconut oils. According to The Body Shop, 65% of the company’s products contained community traded ingredients by the end of 2008 and the company spent over $12 million on community trade ingredients in 2006.
In October 2009, The Body Shop was awarded a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ by the RSPCA in Britain, in recognition of its uncompromised policy which ensures ingredients are not tested by its suppliers.
It should be noted that no multimillion dollar company is perfect and that there was some controversy not long before Anita Roddick’s death when an article was published revealing she had actually copied the name, concept and original brochures from the original The Body Shop, which she discovered in San Francisco in the 70s. She bought the rights to their name and threw in a confidentiality agreement into the mix for good measure. It was years before the truth came out that the original idea was not in fact hers. Despite this controversy, the fact is they were ground-breaking in the 80s and 90s and made people aware for the first time of really where the ingredients in their face creams, body lotions and shampoos actually came from, and whether they are ethically sourced and not tested on animals. They certainly helped to usher in the next generation of “green” and “organic” skincare companies and for this fact alone The Body Shop should be saluted as a pioneer.
Product(RED) is a concept founded by U2 frontman and activist Bono and Bobby Shriver of ONE/DATA. It is probably the best example out there of combining canny business with activism. Bono saw that global fashion, lifestyle and tech companies wanted to do good and presented them a framework in which this was possible, while still allowing everyone to actually make money. The idea is that each company involved creates a product with the Product(RED) logo and they can increase revenue through the Project(RED) license. Note that only a certain percentage of the profits from each company’s Product(RED) line are given to The Global Fund charity – which fights AIDS in Africa. Every company involved covers their costs and puts money in their own pocket too. They call it “ethical consumerism”. We call it slightly cynical – surely each of these brands can afford to donate all Product(RED) profits to charity but it’s better than nothing! Brands involved thus far include Nike, American Express (UK), Apple Inc, Starbucks, Converse, Penguin Classics, Gap, Emporio Armani, Dell and Beats Electronics (by Dr Dre). So far 200 million has been donated (The Global Fund uses 100% of that money directly for the purpose of fighting AIDS) and 14 million people in Africa have been helped so far.