No one can deny that this year’s Oscar’s have experienced serious backlash with strong implications for The Academy’s brand reputation and relevance now, and into the future. Between the glittering white smiles, star-studded skits and hurried acceptance speeches, accusations of racism were scattered throughout Sunday’s presentation.
Yet perhaps the most striking aspect of the night was the breadth of issues given stage time – eight, to be exact, not including #OscarsSoWhite. The key differentiator was in how each of these messages was delivered.
Women’s rights from Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the only female director to win an award: “[Thank you] to all the brave men out there, like my father and my husband, who push women to go to school and work, and who want a more just society for women … This is what happens when determined women get together … This week the Pakistani Prime Minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.”
Institutional child abuse from Spotlight producers Steve Golin and Michael Sugar: “This film gave a voice to survivors. And this Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican … Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”
Sexual assault from Vice President Biden, Lady Gaga and a number of campus sexual assault victims in a lengthy spot that was hard to miss: “We must and we can change the culture, so that no abused woman or man, like the survivors you will see tonight, ever feel they have to ask themselves: ‘What did I do?’”
Election finance reform from The Big Short screenwriters Adam McKay and Charles Randolph:“We’ve got to stop the money … When you elect people who get money from big oil and banks, that’s who you’re voting for.”
Climate change from the man of the hour, Leonardo DiCaprio, in a widely publicized acceptance speech: “Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to find snow. Climate change is real. It is happening now. It’s the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating … Let us not take this planet for granted.”
LGBT Equality from Sam Smith, despite some faulty fact checking: “I read an article a few months ago by Sir Ian McKellen, and he said that no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar. If this is the case — even if it isn’t the case — I want to dedicate this to the LGBT community all around the world … I stand here tonight as a proud gay man, and I hope that we can all stand together as equals one day.”
Diversity beyond black most notably from Alejandro González Iñárritu as he shouted through the walk-off music: “What a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and, you know, this tribal thinking, and make sure for once and forever that the color of the skin become as irrelevant as the length of our hair,” and later continuing backstage, “The debate is not only about black and white people. The world is much more than one or the other.”
Police violence, although it was swept up in the diversity conversation, from Chris Rock: “This year, in the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies.”
So how do we make sense of this barrage of issues?
It becomes difficult for a message to break through when so many different people are promoting so many different issues during the one show. This begs the question: what does it take to make a specific message stand out above the noise?
The key takeaway: the most powerful messages are the most relevant messages.
Those who spoke about issues out of sync with the film they were a part of, disconnected from the audience they were in front of, or unrelated to tangible action, struggled to receive a strong reception. On the other hand, those who related the cause they were championing to the goal of their film, to the experiences of the audience in the Dolby Theatre, or to actionable outcomes broke through to rise above the noise.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s speech is a great example—not only was her film directly concerned with women’s rights, but the issue of female equality has also been of significant concern to women in Hollywood. And, as the only female director to receive an award, she was granted greater authority to be a spokesperson for women in this context. Moreover, she spoke to the power of the medium of film itself to cause real change and how her film has made a tangible difference. This is relevance at its best – where context and spokesperson are entirely in tune with the issue at-hand and are rolling up their sleeves to champion change.
On the other hand, Sam Smith’s push for LGBT rights unfortunately fell flat for a number of reasons other than the factual errors. Winning the award for “Best Original Song,” Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall” was featured in a movie known for its womanizing, hyper-masculine lead character, James Bond, with lyrics that lacked any relation to gay rights. Moreover, Smith won the award over ANOHNI, a transgender performer who made her point by not attending the ceremony in the first place, writing “I will not be lulled into submission with a few more well-manufactured, feel-good ballads.” The contrast between the two nominees is stark, Smith misjudging his authority and lacking contextual awareness, and thus missing the mark on being relevant, as well as being unaware of the award-winning trailblazers that came before him.
The remainder of the speeches fell between these two extremes, varying on how well they connected to the filmmaking industry, their personal brand and reason for nomination, and their ability to create meaningful change.
The lesson for brands?
As more and more brands continue to recognise the need to embed social purpose into their business, those that truly understand the context within which they operate, and communicate with the most relevance will be the ones best positioned to rise above the rest.
Here are a few checkpoints to ensure your brand maintains integrity and relevance while delivering value when bringing your purpose to life:
- Stay in-tune with the issues of your industry.
- Embrace who you are as a brand and your reason for being as the foundation for building unique purpose for your brand.
- Take real, actionable steps to create change for the issues and causes you care about, aligning your real world behaviour with your values or mission.