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Dominic Mills 

Dead-cat distractions & sticky slogans 

Dead-cat distractions & sticky slogans 

Dominic Mills reveals Facebook's attempts to distract us from negative sentiment towards its platform before reviewing Sainsbury's new tag-line

Experienced practitioners of the darker arts of PR call it the dead-cat strategy. When your client is in trouble, they advise, throw a dead cat on to the table. Hey presto, all the attention focuses on that and away from your client.

I rather feel this may have been the underlying motivation behind a flurry of Facebook activity last week, coinciding not just with the Australian impasse (ok, now resolved) and the threat of similar action elsewhere, but also the impact of its new privacy plans, which have the police deeply worried and were described by the Times last Friday as a “honeypot for child sex offenders”.

Exhibit #1 was the first interview by the co-chair of Facebook’s expensively assembled Oversight Board, former Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

You can see her last Wednesday with Channel 4’s Jon Snow here explaining that, sadly, the board had no remit to cover paid advertising, algorithms or data-use, nor dealings with governments like Australia’s. But she was able to toss a morsel the way of C4 News — catnip to Snow and immediately billed as an “exclusive”  — by explaining that it would examine the Trump case.

Those interested in the evolution of Facebook’s attempts to deal with growing political pressure might be well advised to take a look at the Oversight Board and its membership of 19 of the global good and great: a heady mix of lawyers, university scholars, NGOs and the like, plus two journalists.

Mixed and diverse in some senses, ordinary people they are not.

Personally, I’d have a few people on the board like Jackie Weaver, star of the Handforth Parish Council affair. She’s got a strong moral compass and knows how to run a Zoom meeting. Unfortunately, Nick Clegg’s contacts book does not have an Ordinary People section.

Exhibit #2 is this ad about Facebook's “public service” efforts from Saturday’s Guardian colour supplement.

“Working together is more important than ever in the fight against COVID-19”, the headline tells us, before tossing in a few more morsels of what it is doing with various health bodies.

Yeah well…so are many other corporate entities but they don’t seem to need to tell us all the time.

Exhibit #3 is a new ad for Portal featuring a new mum who Portals her mum for advice on breast-feeding (or, as new inclusive language has it, ‘chest-feeding’.).

It scores high on the emotion stakes, which at least is an improvement on the Ian Wright ads at Christmas.

It’s part of a larger campaign featuring mum blogger and I’m a Celeb winner Giovanna Fletcher. If you’re going to be sceptical you could say that, when you’re in trouble, there’s no downside to appealing to the young mums’ cohort.

And exhibit #4 is also new last week - a U.S ad selling the benefits of Facebook advertising to small businesses — a group whose support is a key component of its business model.

The ad combines a soundtrack with a mesmeric beat and a slightly daft and clumsy poem, which to the casual viewer is mildly entertaining.

But behind it is a more explicit message — made clear on an FB web page here, which positions Apple as the enemy of small business and Facebook as its friend.

And Facebook is ramping up the battle lines with its arch enemy (ok, one of many): “Do you have concerns about how Apple’s update could impact your business?”, it asks. “Add your voice to the conversation…”

What is clear here is that, on multiple fronts, Facebook is engaged in an almighty effort to build and shore up as much public support as it can. And for every reversal or negative headline — Australia, tax, Trump and so on — it will deploy its formidable resources, much of which includes advertising.

Slogans that stick

Big news from the 'World of Slogans' for anoraks like me. Sainsbury’s is ‘retiring’ — hate that word: dumping or ditching is better — its current tag line and introducing a new one.

Ta da… 'Helping Everyone Eat Better’.

It’s not exactly a riveting slogan, but the thinking behind it, I feel, is interesting.

You can read the full and official explanation here but the shorthand version is this: it’s part of a big play for the green shoppers’ wallet insofar as it combines a focus on healthy eating with a renewed commitment to net zero.

As part of this, Sainsbury’s is ‘supporting’ this year’s COP26 global environment conference in Glasgow.

I imagine Sainsbury’s believes that, as public concern about and scrutiny of corporate carbon emissions grows, there is major competitive advantage to be had in sponsoring COP26 versus other supermarkets.

I don’t disagree. What I find more interesting is that this slogan replaces its predecessor — ‘Live well for Less’ — after less than a decade.

And that replaced ‘Try Something New Today’, which lasted just six years. And that replaced ‘Making Life Better’, which again lasted just six years. In slogan chronology these are like nano-seconds.

Compare this rate of change with the Sainsbury’s slogan that I grew up with, ‘Good Food costs less at Sainsbury’s’, which lasted from the 1950s to the 1990s.

I make this point not to quibble with the actual content of the slogans — that is a whole separate column — but to highlight the way the rate of change in slogans has accelerated at Sainsbury’s.

I suppose you can tell from its sluggish sales performance, but what this underlines is how Sainsbury’s has struggled for the last 20-30 years with an identity problem.

And this matters because it takes an age for slogans to become embedded in the customer psyche, more so today when mass media has less impact.

So by the time the public has taken one on, Sainsbury’s is already moving to change it. You get the feeling that changing the slogan becomes a displacement activity for fixing the real problem.

Tesco, by contrast, has been the model of slogan fidelity.

Tongue in cheek, and based on a Sainsbury’s cover wrap on the Saturday Guardian on which every item was an Aldi’s price match, maybe it should think again.

‘Taking on the Germans’ springs to mind.

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 2 Mar 2021
“"Good Food costs less at Sainsbury’s’, which lasted from the 1950s to the 1990s."
If I'd had to guess, I would've said that was still its current slogan, but it is in fact nearly 30 years old - how depressing! Possibly it says something about the transience and lack of heft of the intervening slogans, or just that we're old...”