It is that time of the year again. The Suitsupply campaign for the spring of 2018 has been launched with a lot of protesting as a result. It started when the Suitsupply campaign with new ad photos was launched on February 21 on Instagram. With the tagline ‘Don’t just fit in – find your own perfect fit‘ we see a man in a suit hugging a man in tight swimming trunks, followed with another photo of two men in suits caressing each other, and to top it off: men kissing.
Immediately a flood of negative comments followed, and within a few days the brand lost about 12,000 followers. Approximately a week later, around 5,000 bus stop shelters were filled with the kissing men throughout the Netherlands. The commotion about the Suitsupply campaign continued to swell. In several cities dozens of bus stop shelters were smeared, taped up or completely destroyed. A Roman Catholic protest followed in Nijmegen which also involved a counter-protest. And the VVD in Amsterdam hung posters of their own kissing men.
Not the first time
It is almost common practice that Suitsupply’s bus shelter posters cause controversy and fuss. Quote made in 2016 even produced a nice list of the most controversial posters of the clothing brand. In the past they were almost always showing naked ladies. Theposters were therefore especially disapproved of from a feminist point of view, plus perhaps a handful of concerned parents who found the erotic character tasteless and inappropriate. Even those posters were often covered with tape or sanitary napkins.
This year, the posters contain considerably less nudity than in the previous campaigns. Yet the reactions about the Suitsupply campaign are even more intense than ever. In an interview with nu.nl CEO Fokke de Jong mentions that he expected intense reactions but not on this scale. He is also surprised by the high number of indignant parents who asked how they explain this to their children. Apparently they do not get that question from posters with a heterosexual couple.
Desire to shock?
Suitsupply claims their campaigns are not really designed for confrontation. Nevertheless, generating attention seems to me the main goal. The larger the commotion, the more extensive the mention in the media, and the more attention for your brand. When designing a controversial campaign, you have to ask yourself what long-term effect it will have on the attitude of different groups of people. Are you reaching a group of new customers? Does that weigh up against existing customers that you lose?
And that is exactly where the kissing men differ from the earlier posters with naked women. All that feminine exposure, and the depicted power position of the men, was mainly rejected by, yes, women. And this was not relevant for the brand: it is the men who have to buy their tailor-made suit at Suitsupply. In this case, commotion causes extra attention, without damaging the reputation among men.
For this article I have left out the social importance of marketing communications with more diversity. From a purely marketing technical point of view, it has been a strange choice by Suitsupply to put their core value of masculinity on the line. Are they suddenly repentant? Or is it just a calculated error? Yes, diversity and inclusiveness are hip nowadays, but neuromarketers will agree with me that a hip trend cannot simply take over from our evolutionary nature.
Suitsupply campaign and the psychological reactance
Well, it is clear that it matters who you address – or upset. But why are the reactions on the Suitsupply campagin so much more intense than expected, and so much more intense than in the previous campaigns where there was a lot of commotion as well? From a moral point of view it is tempting to think that gay couples should be seen more often ‘so that they become more normal’. Unfortunately, that strategy does not apply. For that we are too much hindered by the backfire effect and psychological reactance.
The backfire effect: When we are convinced of something and the subject is close to our hearts, information that is opposite to our point of view will not convince us, but rather strengthen our conviction. It does not matter what is ‘true’ or ‘good’. Have you ever wondered why it is impossible to win an online discussion? That is the backfire effect: the more arguments you put forward, the stronger the opponent defends his position. Although this principle mainly concerns information and arguments, you also see it in the associations that images evoke. The image with kissing men might want to say ‘we are also normal’. A committed homophobic, however, ‘sees it as unnatural’.
You could describe reactivity simply as ‘blind resistance’. This resistance is triggered when we get the feeling that we are limited in our liberties and possibilities. And that is exactly what happens in the minds of people who prefer not to see Suitsupply’s posters. They get the feeling that they are forced to look at the homosexual couple and adopt an accepting attitude, which threatens to deprive them of the freedom of ‘being against’. So they cling even more strongly to their resistance.
Ultimately, you have to weigh up a number of questions and balance them for every exciting campaign. Who likes this? Who gets insulted? And how does this relate to my target group? The backfire effect and psychological reactance when combined, ensures that people do not just change their minds when it comes to core values. Suitsupply has now experienced that directly. I’m curious how they will top that next year!