In the wake of the US Presidential visit, the rise of the Brexit party and an actor with no experience being elected President of Ukraine, it seems being ‘disruptive’ is now the new normal. Businesses however need to be careful not to overplay their hand when it comes to making a scene. In the last year alone, Pepsi, BrewDog, Paddy Power and Lush – and let’s not forget these are all seasoned advertisers – have fallen into the trap of running deliberately provocative campaigns that create headlines for the wrong reasons. In late May, NatWest joined these hallowed ranks with the firm’s ‘A Woman’s Worth’ campaign.

Designed to tackle the issue of gender bias in the financial services sector – which remains doggedly dominated by men – the campaign involved a partnership with Stylist magazine that was fronted by a bowler-hatted bank manager of the type synonymous with Mary Poppins’ employer, the veritable Mr Banks. In the adverts, ‘Mr Banker’ apologises for the industry’s historically patronising approach to women which has led to a financial confidence gap opening up between men and women in everything from pensions to credit cards.

NatWest is on the money here; there’s a very real issue with gender bias in the sector. As an industry, it is at the top of the heap when it comes to having the worst gender pay gap in the UK, but there’s an issue with the way we manage money at home too. For example, in 2018 the Chartered Insurance Industry (CII) found a mixture of the gender pay gap, confidence in financial affairs and childcare means women are likely to have five times less cash in their pension pot than men. NatWest is right to seek out ways to make the sector more equal.

But the problem isn’t the message, it’s the way it was delivered. Why did NatWest illustrate the adverts with a big bunch of flowers? Why the man in the bowler hat? Why call him Mr. Banker? It’s corny, it’s silly and it’s patronising

NatWest’s argument is that it was trying to be deliberately provocative to generate headlines, a little like Gillette managed to do with its recent campaign, although that feels like an excuse for a wide-of-the-mark attempt to lighten a genuine issue. But it’s not the first company to try to be provocative and end up having to apologise, with the rush on social media to condemn the stunt reminiscent of Paddy Power’s ill-judged polar bear painting to highlight the big mammal’s plight and BrewDog’s ‘Pink IPA’ launch. Sure, they might be ‘disruptive’, but are they really stimulating debate in the way they want?


Simon Gill is an account director at Camargue.

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