“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” reads the first line of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. The novel, a tale of sex and scandal, is a reflection on Victorian society given by the main protagonist Leo Colston who stumbles upon his diary from when he was thirteen years old. Upon reading, suppressed memories of an interclass clandestine affair return, along with all the hurt and hardship it caused.
Nowadays, a story like this would be small beer. But at the time, breaking this cultural code was nothing short of sordid, culminating in a nervous breakdown and even suicide in the book.
We’ve come a long way from the stuffy Victorian age, but that doesn’t mean we are without taboos today. Indeed, breaking taboos is very much on the menu these days. From menstruation to mental health, death to disability, the past decade showed that brands are increasingly broaching topics that not long ago would have been unthinkable.
The list of taboo-busting is long. Bodyform is perhaps the most well-known example, being the first brand to show menstruation blood in their advertising. The 2012 Paralympics adverts are another set of taboo-busting campaigns that spring to mind, aiming to change the narrative around how these handicapped athletes were anything but. Then there was of course ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ by Gillette, which was so divisive that it reportedly led to death threats being made to those involved.
Many of these campaigns acted as bellwethers of a trend that defined the remainder of the decade, with campaigns such as the Tampon Book by The Female Company — which lauded the ‘luxury’ tax bracket tampons are on in Germany — leading to actual real-life change.
So what gives? Why are brands breaking taboos more so today than before? At a global level, the last decade was one of protest. From the Occupy Movement to the Arab Spring, to the #MeToo Movement and the Joker film, the spirit of the decade was very much one of anger.
This perhaps helps explain why, according to Kantar, 68% of US consumers now expect brands to be clear about their values. When it comes to actually taking a stand, the number varies depending on the specific demographics: Millennials have the highest overall expectation that brands should speak out on behalf of a cause, with 46% of the age group expecting brands to be brave.
This number drops slightly to 42% of Gen Z, 31% of Gen X, and to 22% of Boomers respectively, with these groups having lower expectations for brands taking a public stance on social issues.
With this in mind, it beggars the question of whether or not the rise in the breaking of taboos simply a case of ‘demography is destiny’? In the US, Millennials surpassed Boomers as the largest group in 2020 according to the Pew Research Center. At the end of the day, brands are by and large designed to preach to the choir in order to sell stuff.
But it likely a bit more nuanced than that. The speed and ferocity with which brands are breaking taboos cannot simply come from one group preaching at another. If the stats are anything to go by, it is indeed a case of ‘demography is destiny’, but the reason brands and agencies are venturing so deep into heretical territory is because they themselves are populated by heretics.
Simply put, for several years now, Millennials have also made up the largest portion of both the UK and US labour forces. This facilitates change in a lot of ways.
"If there is one thing that has proven time and time again, when a brand executes a campaign authentically, it often lands a helluva lot better than when it executes something just for the hell of it."
The heretics have taken over the asylum
Peakon, an HR platform that gets employees to record their grievances, views, and aspirations provides a curious peek behind the curtain when it comes to what is occurring inside of companies right now.
In wake of events such as the murdering of George Floyd, results from a whopping 150 million employees taken on the platform showed a spike in concerns around race, gender, and LGBTQ+ rights. More generally, over the course of lockdown-heavy 2020, mental health comprised over 75% of wellbeing comments. If there’s one thing that connects these topics, it’s that they have all been at one time or another, taboo ones.
In this sense, it is the intersection of external, wider forces with internal, more individual ones which fuels the taboo-busting engine. As more often than not, such decisions are not made in a vacuum, and instead only gain traction because they are already pushing against an (increasingly) open door.
This is why so many of the taboo-centric campaigns we are seeing today are so successful: they are an exercise in externally practicing what many companies now internally preach.
Let's get ethical
The idea of your inner brand reflecting your outer brand is of course nothing new. Ultimately it is an argument about authenticity, which today is something that consumers can pick up on in a heartbeat. But when companies are increasingly composed of taboo-busting heretics, it makes sense that better and more numerous taboo-breaking campaigns are going to come to the fore.
If there is one thing that has proven time and time again, when a brand executes a campaign authentically, it often lands a helluva lot better than when it executes something just for the hell of it. 55% of UK consumers say their purchasing consideration is driven by a company’s ethical values and authenticity according to Accenture — something which doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon.
So why are we seeing more and more taboos being broken around the globe? In a nutshell, it is the confluence of a growing appetite for it both within and without of a business. But for it to work, it all comes back to the idea of authenticity, and your inner and outer brand being one and the same.