SOCIAL REPRESENTATIONS

A lot has been said about living in an era of political correctness; on the one hand, it is encouraging because it makes us think twice before saying something without mincing our words, be it racist, discriminatory or offensive. This happens just as much in conversations with friends as when we tweet it to our 12,000 followers

But the era of political correctness could also be hurting creativity and disruptive content. It seems that brands are increasingly afraid of engaging in controversies. For example, this Spanish department store brand (El Corte Inglés) that only depicted mothers as “devoted mothers” in their campaign a few weeks ago. A few years ago, the Mexican medal winning Olympic diver  Paola Espinosa said that being a mother was her greatest medal and a deluge of criticism fell upon her (especially when Gatorade, her sponsor brand, congratulated her). What is happening is that maternity, as many other topics, are being re-signified in the public sphere. What does this mean?

There are many social phenomena that we understand because we create a mental image of what they are. We think certain things about them, they have a particular meaning, and we have specific attitudes towards them. These things that we think about them, are called “social representations”. What is interesting is that they aren’t correct nor incorrect, but they change according to the values of each era and/or context, therefore, they are more or less socially accepted.So getting back to the maternity issue, in the past even pregnant women smoked; today smokers are exiled from bars or parties in many countries throughout the world.  The activity didn’t precisely change, but the way we think about it and how we socially represent it, did.

Regarding this issue (smoking) almost all of us more or less agree, and we have reached a general consensus that smoking is bad, so it becomes less controversial. But there are (many) other topics, in which we are far from reaching a social agreement, and this is when what they call “the battle of sense” occurs. The example of maternity we were talking about is very complex; in the past we all agreed that a mother should be completely dedicated to her children. After the feminist movement in the 60’s, women said that this wasn’t all they wanted for their self-realization, and around the 90´s during the reign of day care children, it was entirely accepted to say that women wanted to work. But nowadays all of this is confusing: it is just as valid to be a stay home mom as it is to be a working mom, this is why Paola Espinosa created such controversy; some people supported her and others attacked her.

Furthermore when these topics arise, a kind of social silence is created; in which we prefer not to take a stand because we don’t know exactly what sidethe person in front of us belongs to and we prefer not to have a draining argument which will not make any of the parties change their minds. Should we enrich our social conversation, or should we be silent to avoid confrontations?

And if it is difficult for a person to make a decision regarding their position, imagine how difficult it is for a brand. Should a brand treat a topic from the stand point we all agree on? Or would it be better to approach it right at that historical moment whilewe are still working out our position?And particularly in this era of political correctness,is “validated” social representation (also referred to as hegemonic) the vision to which a brand should attach itself? How coercive is it for creativity and more “disruptive” thinking?Do  brands exercise social silence as well?

It would seem very out dated to speak only of mothers being 96% devoted; but brands, more than anyone else know the backlash of being controversial on social networks. Aren´t these social networks supposed to be precisely a banner for the technology of these more open and modern times? It seems that these exaggerated reactions (even if they last only for hours, days or weeks) have been able to scare the (somewhat reactionary) discourses or at least those that are different from what has been agreed upon by everyone. Is this a step backwards? Or is the politically correct a social advancement because it reduces discrimination and attacks on vulnerable groups?

It probably has to do with the tone and objective of the brand. Has it historically been more proactive? Does it look for more followers? Does it want to make “noise”? Or does it prefer to keep a low profile? It is a decision that each brand will make according to what´s best for them; what they can’t do is ignore which is the validated social representation and which is the controversial phenomena they are going to make reference to:  they could simulate a sort of anticipated damage control to decide if they are willing to confront it with all its inconveniences, but above all evaluate the social gains that it would entail.