Taboos come from fear

On the panel, Creative Director of feminine hygiene brand Thinx, Meng Shui, spoke of how societal taboos stem from several fear factors.

First, there is the primal, physical element: we are hard-wired to recoil at the thought of blood or death for example. These taboos make us feel physically uncomfortable, and many are based upon our survival. This is why the ‘othered’ are so ostracised — in order to facilitate wider group safety.

Second, comes a more emotional element, a top-down approach facilitated by religion and culture. This fear is systemic rather than primal, and often sits outside of logic. These irrational taboos — talking about periods for example — are tools of subjugation more so than anything else, and were created to facilitate greater group cohesion.

Taboos are riddled with double standards

Sinéad Molloy, Head of Marketing at breast cancer awareness charity CoppaFeel! pointed out the hypocrisy of how breasts are used and viewed in advertising and in society in general. No one could deny how often the female form is used in order to sell stuff — which no-one seems to mind — but once breasts are depicted being used for what they are actually for — take breastfeeding for instance — issues often arise.

The lack of nuance is also hammered home by the fact that in many cultures breasts are as innocuous as everything else. In this sense, by highlighting the hypocrisy, incoherence and senselessness of many of today’s taboos, we may be better equipped to dismantling them.

Breaking taboos is binary

Molloy went on to explain how more often than not, breaking taboos is a polarising act. Whilst brands may never set out to anger the public, what was apparent on the panel was that even broaching these subjects would provoke an emotional and reactionary response.

However, it is impossible to please everyone, and as Paul Kemp-Robertson, Co Founder of Contagious, rightly pointed out: “If you don’t stand for something you stand for nothing.” Indeed, the census across the board was that if you attempt to bring everyone into the fold, the message would get folded into something it was not — diluted to the point of irrelevance.

Breaking taboos requires bravery

Brands which break taboos are displaying a level of bravery, for there is always a chance that when a brand breaks a taboo or two, in the short term it could adversely effect that bottom line. As Kemp-Roberstson went on to say “It is much safer to sit within the status quo” but at the same time, much like creativity itself, breaking taboos comes from a divergent way of thinking — which often breeds positive results.

Referring to an experiment conducted by Cornell University, Kemp-Robertson spoke of how when asked to give a solution to a problem, participants were given a divergent idea at the last second. Subliminally, they had to record how this curveball idea made them feel: the words “vomit” “poison” and “agony” were used. When brands are breaking taboos, this is the uphill battle they often find themselves up against.

Breaking taboos is an exercise in empowerment

When we break taboos, and where one party feels itself losing out to another — it is because a wrong is being righted, an unbalance equalised. As Heather Morrison, Co-Founder of disabled sex toy maker Handi knows far too well, providing a platform where the marginalised can express themselves is paramount. In this sense, when brands and charities help address taboos, they are often engaging in an exercise of empowerment.

This in part helps explain perhaps why breaking taboos is such a visceral act. For whilst one party maybe losing out, another is in celebrating its independence day. So although it may seem risky to engage in taboo-busting, it is always good to keep in mind the other side of the coin.

To break taboos successfully, build empathy

One of the main takeaways was that to break taboos successfully, brands must build a level of empathy. This is reframing the taboo in a way which is perhaps more palatable to those unaffected by it, and broaching the conversation in a way that helps highlight the illogical nature of the taboo itself.

For smaller brands, this is easy, as more often than not their emotional story is central to their business. As Eddy Edwards, Creative Director at DeadHappy! stated, this is a “weapon” that brands have to use in order to bust taboos.

Normalising the broken taboo is key

When it comes to bigger brands breaking taboos, the fact that their story may not be directly linked to the taboo they are breaking can often lead to charges of cynicism. In this sense, the role of big brands in this space is to widen the path through normalisation, using their greater influence to help put the taboo to bed.

Indeed, Matt Moore, Corporate Fundraising Manager at child-trans charity Mermaids, spoke of how Starbucks’ What’s Your Name campaign was a very “benign” story about telling your name in store. Because of its everyday nature, it was universal and more accessible, and in doing so helped combat the stigma around being trans.

Operate with an authenticity

At the end of the day, in order to bust taboos today, all a brand must really do is act with authenticity. There is of course a risk involved here, and many will get it wrong along the way, but as long as your brand is breaking taboos with action rather than bluster, the taboo-busting should land.

Indeed, this is the case for brands both big and small, as Kemp-Robertson noted, there is room for brands to “fill in some of the points within society that either governments or authorities are not addressing and are not funding properly”. The trick is to find the problem and help solve it.

To watch the highlights of the event, click here.