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Dominic Mills 

Declaring war on normal & the perfect ad test 

Declaring war on normal & the perfect ad test 

Dominic Mills wonders where Unilever's decision to ban the word 'normal' leaves people like him

It was back in 2000 that an M&S TV ad featured a size 16 model running up a hill, stripping off as she goes. At the summit she raises her arms to the sun and shouts “I’m normal….”.

Apart from representing the ‘normalisation’ of M&S advertising — an institution that historically hated marketing, this was the first time in its-then 100-year history it had used TV — it also represented two things:

One, an attempt to reassure women that the pursuit of body perfection was a false god; and two, that M&S was normalising being different. “If you’re not average, you’re normal,” M&S said. In this respect, although not in others, M&S was ahead of the times.

But how popular culture turns.

Last week, during which the world’s most abnormal family chose to air its dirty laundry in public, Unilever announced that it would ban the word ‘normal’ from packaging and product descriptions, adding almost as a throw-away line that it would no longer digitally alter body shape, or the colour of people in its ads.

In a way, I found the latter point more stunning — was Unilever, pioneer of diversity, owner of Dove and the ‘real beauty’ mantra, arch virtue signaller, still doing naughty stuff with imagery? — and the former more interesting.

Is normal really a dirty word? Does it deserve to be demonised? Is this identity politics writ large? And if things aren’t normal, then what the hell are they?

I’m not sure I can answer all these questions but, having started at one end of the opinion spectrum I’ve moved somewhat.

In the world of skin lotions and hair products, what is normal in one market, India, for example, is not normal in Africa or Europe. So having a product badged for ‘normal’ skin is at best meaningless and at worst, offensive.

In an era where we celebrate difference, normal could be taken to deny the validity of difference and, therefore, undermine diversity. Normal cuts right to the heart of identity.

And yet…it’s complicated.

Normality also offers the comfort of the familiar. In uncertain times, we may may crave normality and that may be in society or the company we keep. How many times in the last 12 months have we prefaced a sentence with the words…’Well, when life goes back to normal…”.?

So you mess with normality at your peril and the thing about it is that it isn’t just the physical, but the mental and the attitudinal too.

So I ask myself this: If Unilever is banning the word normal from its packaging and formulation, surely it must do the same in its advertising. But what does the absence of normal people, whether by look, size and colour, or by attitude, say about Unilever?

No place for me as a consumer of, say, Knorr or Magnum? If you never see a ‘normal’ individual or family in a Unilever ad, do the ‘normals’ then feel alienated?

And then there’s the practical.

Boringly (but perhaps not surprisingly as a white, middle-class, middle-aged male) I think I have normal hair and skin. Faced by the tyranny of product and formulation choice on the Boots shelves, I was always relieved to see a package with the word normal on it. “Phew”, I thought, “that’ll do.”

But consulting AllThingsHair, which is like Wikipedia for hair and owned by Unilever, I realise I am going to be lost.

Hair types offered for women are straight/thin/wavy/thick/curly/natural and for men a choice of just four types — thin/thick/black/curly. No normal.

Well, that’s straight-down-the-line useless for me. So that is Dove and seven other Unilever hair products out for me.

L’Oreal, at least, still lists some shampoos for the likes of me.

The perfect ad test 

Let’s say there is a body called AdQual, whose responsibility is to set exams for advertising students. One of them is about constructing a good test for effectiveness. What would that be?

Here’s one:

  • you have to go from zero to 100% awareness at a household level within about three months
  • at the end of that three months, within a specific time period, those households are required to take a defined action — from which they derive no immediate or material benefit
  • this action can be measured at a granular level
  • there is no competitor set and nor are there any pricing considerations
  • household resistance could take the form of philosophical objections, privacy fears, lack of perceived relevance and general antipathy to society
  • and, from the last time this exercise was carried out a decade ago, a direct campaign-on-campaign comparison can be made and target-setting is theoretically straightforward.

Yes, this is this coming weekend’s Census Day, and our lucky students are M&C Saatchi and MGM OMD.

They’ve already been hard at work — pumping ads out across all media in, so we are told, 44 languages.

I like the ads, and I’ve seen them plenty of times in multiple media. Awareness is not likely to be a problem.

As for targets…the last census showed 26.4 million UK households with, as far as I can see, a 94% completion rate. The latest, non-census, estimates show around 27.8 million households. This time, ONS is setting a 75% online completion target.

So there we have it. Initial exam results should be in by July.

No pressure then, but if there’s a difference between 2011 and now it’s that this time, the census is played out against a background of anti-vaxxing, for which you can also read anti-establishmentism, as well as linking to increasing fears of Big Brotherism.

Now and separately, to how many census questions can you answer ‘normal’?

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ClaireFoss, Owner, Waterfall on 16 Mar 2021
“It's funny that you immediately thought of shampoo - a place where I too, am 'normal' in most brands. And it's tricky to think of another non judgemental word for the middle ground; the Goldilocks of hair. But normal is so loaded for everyone who is 'other'.

I immediately thought of sanitary towels, where the language is: 'normal, normal plus, normal long plus, normal long plus with wings, normal ultra, normal platinum' etc etc etc '

Normal' is both the 'lowest' level available (you're 'normal' if you have a ladylike, tiny period?) and totally meaningless, because almost no one is 'normal' - and a company is judging what 'normal' means. The language basically makes almost everyone feel bad in a whole host of ways.

It might make those who are 'normal' feel uncomfortable to have to change our perception - which is probably fair enough after benefitting from this since marketing began. Brands shouldn't be judging what 'normal' looks like.”
VicDavies, Course Leader & Senior Lecturer, Bucks New University on 15 Mar 2021
“Where does not using 'normal' stop ? No longer looking at averages in research results ? No No longer optimising around the average when assessing econometric analysis ? Whilst at the other extreme having to think just what are you looking at when trying gaining the attention, of , communicate, with this person who momentarily flits in front of your message. The female, who is a mother, wife, main shopper, business executive, worker, woman? Who and what is she in that moment of identity and how do you communicate with her at that moment ? In an age where individuality is the norm, and that individuality is multifaceted, who are you talking ?”