Don’t watch that, watch this

Today’s digital age offers us a new freedom of speech

… and more opportunities to win hearts and minds

Fans of the acclaimed TV series Madmen, set in the 1960s heyday of advertising executives on New York’s Madison Avenue, will be familiar with its central character Don Draper and his talent for finding a way out of tight situations, both at and away from the office.

It was in one particularly tense business meeting, where a property client was frustrated by continuing public hostility to his development plans, that the ultra cool Don gave us the classic line: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

To communications professionals around the world it’s become something of a mantra for today, not just Don’s increasingly distant days of around 50 years ago. How he would have capitalised on the multi-channel, narrowcasting, digital media world we have now, where there are more opportunities to ‘change the conversation’ than ever before.

In fact, when anyone out there can tell the world what they think of it in a blog, a tweet, Facebook post, home-made YouTube clip and goodness knows what else as digital and social media channels continue to proliferate at a dizzying rate, gossips and citizen journalists alike can spread their messages to their hearts’ content. This has to be the golden age of changing the conversation.

We’re no longer tied to the ‘paid for’ advertising channels and ‘earned’ media editorial, or PR that Don Draper was. We have the ready option to use ‘owned’ digital media available wherever we look – on the internet, on our mobile phones, tablets and an ever-widening choice of devices.

The National Farmers’ Union, for example, was alive to today’s broadening scope to change the conversation when it moved the Bovine TB debate on from the traditional media’s romantic portrayal of badgers to the harsh reality of what it means to be a farmer whose cattle have largely had to be culled because of TB infection. It managed this by commissioning a film of livestock farmer David Barton to show how his herd had been devastated by TB, then putting it on YouTube and social media. This changed the debate as to what should be done about TB. It conveyed the suffering caused to livestock and farmers as well as to badgers and so it changed the conversation.

Of course, conversation itself has always been used as a prime way of winning hearts and minds and has long been seen as a means of selling a product or service. The acknowledged father of public relations, the American Ed Bernays, famously changed the conversation around whether or not it is socially acceptable for women to smoke cigarettes (which had previously been seen as taboo).

Though ethically questionable by today’s standards, Bernays started a campaign to link cigarettes to the issue of female emancipation by branding them ‘torches of freedom‘, and encouraging women to parade their cigs in a march up 5th Avenue (even producing them from under their stocking garters!) to demonstrate their independence. By changing this topic of conversation, Bernays opened up the market for his client (Lucky Strike) to sell to another 50 per cent of the population.

A modern, digital age equivalent to Bernays’ art of PR-inspired conversation came from US feminine hygiene brand Always. Its take on female emancipation comes with the conversation opener, ‘When did doing something like a girl become an insult?’ A series of interviews in a slickly produced YouTube film capture older girls confirming the awkward ‘girly’ stereotypes raised by a survey that had identified a drop in girls’ confidence at puberty. A number of uninhibited younger girls then step up to challenge that stereotype.

By challenging the ‘girly’ image and urging women not to be afraid to be themselves, the video not only ‘changed the conversation’ but went viral on social media… and positioned Always as an active champion of its customers’ right to free expression.

So the tools are all there now to do the job… and there’s a genuine willingness on the part of consumers to engage in debate and take on the conversations and key messages aired by brands, whether they be products, businesses or organisations.

But the debate has to be interesting, engaging and presented in the right way. Maybe we can’t promise you Don Draper but if you’d like to talk to the team at Creative Bridge about how you can change the conversation, talk to us by telephone (01455 883880), email (, tweet us @1creativebridge or by any other media of your choice.

Michelle Hallmark

About Michelle Hallmark

Leads our new business and client development strategy. Formerly our head of communications and a NCTJ and CIPR qualified news reporter with local, regional and national experience.
Michelle’s passion: snazzy shoes.