Smouldering Dangerous Coffee

22nd December 2015

Because I live in a post-television age in my own home (two years and counting), I had to shut up my friend. He was insisting on chatting as we sat in the cinema, waiting for the film to start.

‘Don’t talk. I want to study the ads’, I said. I have become hungry for the things that sell me things. 

On came an onslaught of Christmas emotion. Unrelenting. A tsunami of Yuletide warmth, lasting intervals of either 30″, 45″ or 60″. 

‘They’re all the same’, my friend whispered, wryly. ‘Almost every story is about Daddy coming home’. 

And so it was. All of these noble brands seeking to create such special communication, only to find themselves in a stew of material so similar as to make each ad indistinguishable from the next. This was hardly their intent. 

It really is time to re-imagine Christmas, I thought, sitting in the blue velvety seats of the Lighthouse. We need some brands ballsy enough to ignore ‘the season’ altogether. 

The elves must have been listening, for out popped a piece of advertising which had the courage of its convictions, and told a story completely free of red and white schmaltz. 

Unfortunately, I thought it was a terrible ad. 

Now, Kenco’s ‘Coffee versus Gangs’ campaign is running for well over a year. Even I have seen it before. I certainly remember an intrepid Irish Times reporter travelling to Honduras, on a trip sponsored by Kenco, to answer the burning headline ‘Can coffee bring hope to Honduras?’. As a reader, I was hardly persuaded to take the question seriously, given that context. 

The Telegraph has run a set of articles with a similar association. Indeed, when I scour the press for commentary on Kenco (a Mondelez brand) and Coffee versus Gangs, I find more placed messaging than I do independent commentary. I could find precious few commentators who share my unease with this ad. 

So, be warned, dear reader: the moan fest below is a minority opinion.

Let me be clear, and also try to be fair. I do not object in principle to Kenco funding a programme to pull twenty young people, prospects for gang violence, from the streets in favour of a life of coffee agronomy. Nor do I expect Kenco to enact thought-through works of charity, and do so silently. 

But I hated, absolutely hated, the ad which told that story

In purporting to help eradicate gang violence, the ad assiduously glamorises and fetishises teen gang culture for its own ends. The tatts. The smouldering heat. The semi-naked bodies. The melodrama of danger. The clash of good and evil.

 As a punter, it reads like bare-faced piggy backing on a very real problem. 

This sense of dissonance was heightened as I read up on the campaign, which led to a reported 52% rise in Kenco sales (versus 11% planned) in the UK, after four months. 

The Coffee versus Gangs concept was created by their ad agency (JWT) in response to a brief to “humanise” Kenco’s existing ethical credentials. Thus, the starting point was a communication need, and the ‘creative solution’ a happy, non-linear abracadabra into the world of gang culture. 

Wow. That is a stunning piece of reverse engineering, right there. 

The initiative, to my mind, is motivated by something rather vulgar. It goes in search of a photogenic and empathetic problem which responds to the brand issues. It invests an unpublished, and surely relatively meagre, sum in creating a programme in conjunction with an NGO. It then spends many many multiples of that funding (Mondelez should publish those figures. They never will.) crowing about the achievement, leveraging the problem’s primal, dangerous energy to the max, all the better to humanise the tale. The youths featured are given pseudonyms to protect their flight to another life, because being emblazoned on Youtube and British and Irish screens is part of the deal. 

I do not call that ethics. I call it brand-building antics, coated in ethic-ish fairy dust.

I am not arguing for Mondelez to stop growing their brand, nor to stop helping kids. I just rather they do so with less contrived chutzpah, and less expedience, and demonstrate more abiding love for the underprivileged youth of Honduras. There is a difference between brands striving to do what is right, and those which found their positioning and growth on the fact that they do right. The latter is a much higher bar.

Oh dear, I thought. Perhaps this is an attack of Seasonal humbug? Perhaps I’m the problem here, with my childish, make-believe wish for transparency, authenticity and humility?

The cinema fell to darkness. 

I began to yearn for Santa, and for the return of a father figure to make it all right.


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