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Taboo Topics 2023

Here's our annual look at six areas that either remain firmly taboo or that we'd expect to see among the barriers coming down in 2023.


An outbreak of 'contactless' hot spots sparked a showdown as defenders of cash pointed out the dangers of relying exclusively on digital payments. While some love the idea of paying by waving or winking, others are profoundly mistrustful of invisible money movements.

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Fintech continues its upswing, but as the cost of living bites hard, even such upbeat campaigns as this one by credit broker TotallyMoney - titled 'You'll Totally get There' - serve as a visual reminder of financial struggle, monitoring and control.

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A hugely diverse range of people avail themselves of financial tech, from donating to the homeless on a city street to securing a car loan. However, alarm bells about cashless societies sounded ever louder last year, and Britain's Telegraph this week reported that "the right to access cash will soon be enshrined in law".

As HSBC - with what can be seen as unfortunate tone deafness - put it in this 2022 campaign for awareness of domestic abuse, it's important we keep control of our own money.

Nothing beats cash as a tangible exchange or show of appreciation. An actor who'd just performed a gallery tour in London - i.e. not the land of tips - was delighted to receive a crisp bank note from one family when the small daughter said, "Mummy, you must give her a tip, she was really good."

Spain's financial services group Bankinter broke the mould for banking ads last year with arresting visuals alluding to the kind of tests the European Union subjects its bank notes to - worth watching just for this - and by extension illustrating tough everyday realities with the use of hard, visible cash.

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Questioning the mainstream narrative continues to be taboo. It seems we're still uncomfortable discussing the complexities of such topics as fossil fuels - the basis for the plastics we're so fond of - Covid jab/other injuries, wealth transfer, conflict, and 'Big' sectors.

Most Western advertising at least continues to take up a stance and then push it, with the dangers of dividing and isolating the public - and ultimately creating further mistrust in advertising itself as other facts or points of view emerge.

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It was largely left to satirists and independent commentators to open up discussion spaces where individuals - often assiduously personalised into isolation by adtech - can gather to explore the complexity, challenge injustice, and laugh at absurdity.

Here's one non-ad ad campaign that caught our eye as epitomising a spirit of questioning that could prove essential for 2023. 

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By US comedian and writer/director Adam McKay, it deploys all the familiar images of happy people in harmony with themselves, each other, and Nature which we are regularly exposed to in ads for all types of products and services. The tagline 'Nothing is more precious than life' takes an unexpected turn....

A great takedown of Big Oil, a stiletto in the side of advertising, or an uncomfortable look in the mirror of manipulation?

Farm food

Appetite for meat-free / 'fake meat' products appears to have reached saturation point, though vigorous promotion continues of the meat alternatives which are now a regular item in supermarkets and fast food or regular eateries.

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In 2022, celebrity Kim Kardashian was brought in to boost one of the best-known brands, Beyond Meat, which comedian Kevin Hart puts some heat under here. Kardashian met mixed reviews when it was spotted she wasn't putting any of the brand's products in her mouth. It wasn't all gravy for Hart, either, with one viewer pointing out:

"Regenerative cattle grazing is better for the planet than fake lab meat. Come on Kevin."

And now battle has been joined beyond branding level as farmers worldwide make known their grievances against 'Big Ag', while consumers look to local as they question the advisability of over-engineering the food supply. In the UK, Tortoise news outlet reports that some MPs are being funded by makers of agricultural chemicals to push back against proposed rewilding and pesticide restrictions.

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And in the USA, multibillionaire Bill Gates raised questions by reportedly buying up 270,000 acres in the USA to make him the largest private owner of farmland there - perhaps indicating a new niche for toney US clothing company Ralph Lauren, which makes a strong case for its appeal to working cowboys in this ad for their denim range.


There are different laws and categories globally for what remains a very sensitive area. This recent Euronews article and chart reflects the ongoing debate on assisted dying in Europe.

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Opportunities for advertisers are understandably fraught in this ethical and emotional landscape. Canada's 182-year-old department store Simons recently stirred mixed reactions with this campaign tackling the taboo of assisted dying. While many are outraged, there are also many who find its 'All Is Beauty' message inspiring and comforting, and a necessary evolution in the normalisation of this highly-charged area.

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Outcry not only centred around individual emotional response but also on the societal implications of legislation. Canada's 2016 Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID) law was updated in 2021 and is currently in the international headlines because the new version allowed for people with mental illness to access the services as of March 2023. As a result of ethical, medical and societal concerns, that date is being challenged at time of writing.

The Simons reflection came out in the same year that the family-run retailer changed its CEO for an outsider for the first time in its history. Outgoing CEO Peter Simons told Canada's The Message publication:

“It’s obviously not a commercial campaign. It’s more an effort to use our freedom, our voice, and the privilege we have to speak and create every day in a way that is more about human connection.
And I think we sincerely believe that companies have a responsibility to participate in communities and to help build the communities that we want to live in tomorrow, and leave to our children.” 


Well, it's been 154 years since the Russian (taboos within taboos) writer and social commentator Leo Tolstoy published 'War and Peace' (top image) in its entirety, but the business of conflict remains a thriving financial sector, while peace continues to be perceived as a dull-eyed, wounded, invisible loser.

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This 2022 promotional campaign by US aerospace company Lockheed Martin (LMT), promising unparalelled expertise across air, land, sea, cyber and Space domains, was released shortly before the Russia/Ukraine situation, which saw LMT stock surge by 18%. 

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Global government figures were among those attending the World Defense Show in March last year, where China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia joined the US, the UK and some 40 other countries at what looked more like a regular business conference than a specialist area. 

Sales of arms and military services by the world’s 100 largest defense companies rose by 1.9% in 2022 to reach $592 billion. (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) Not up there with global advertising revenue at US$771 billion, but clearly a juicy piece of pie for advertisers and other stakeholders.

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The complexities of achieving true peace are left to 'heros with fewer zeros' in their budgets. Pictured, British politician Jeremy Corbyn presents his Peace & Justice project.

However, the meditation app industry is expected to grow at a 30.5% CAGR over the next five years, taking it to US$2.6 billion by 2028. Could individual inner peace win the global wars? 

Coercive control

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Britain acknowledged coercive control as a criminal offence within its domestic abuse laws in 2015. Women's Aid in Britain, which put out this 'Spot The Abuse' game show parody in 2021, defines it as:

"....an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim"
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During the Covid situation, popular TV broadcaster Neil Oliver's video went viral when he said Britain's population was in an abusive relationship with its government. Governments across the world trolled, vilified and punished their people during this period.

"A lack of faith in societal institutions triggered by economic anxiety, disinformation, mass-class divide and a failure of leadership has brought us to where we are today – deeply and dangerously polarized." Edelman 2023 Trust Barometer

With government joining advertising and journalism on the public's least-trusted list through subversion of community, there's clearly plenty of opportunity and challenge ahead.

Actually, it's here.

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Heineken's 'bottle-opener' campaign indicated a way back towards human interactions and the power of real community - we're expecting to see more of that trend in 2023 to counter damaging coercive messaging.

"We want to spark a much-needed conversation about the importance of resisting the societal pressures to be in a constant state of busy work and encourage workers around the world to reprioritize social and leisure time with the people who matter most," said the brand.

Cheers to that!


Posted by Tree Elven on 23/01/2023

Keywords: taboo topics 2023, taboos in advertising, cash versus cashless, coercive control, Neil Oliver, challenging the narrative, farming, Ralph Laurne, Bankinter, Jeremy Corbyn, peace, totallymoney, euthanasia, Canada MAID,

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