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Top Six Taboo Topics 2021

No matter how many taboo topics are tackled through advertising and marketing, certain taboos - i.e. subjects it's deeply uncomfortable for many of us to contemplate/discuss - persist. And we even create new ones in addressing others. Here we take a look at six areas that either remain firmly taboo or that we'd expect to see among the barriers coming down in 2021.


Highly charged emotionally, the issue of abortion is rarely reflected even in public health advertising. In the UK, a 2010 campaign created a backlash when it was aired on TV.  Abortion services are generally detached from broader issues like family planning, women’s health, or enforced sex work in the public perception, and are relegated to specialised environments when it comes to advertising; most of us would be hard put to it to come up with a visible campaign.

Will it continue to be such a thorny issue in 2021?

Argentina legalised early-stage abortion in a ground-breaking decision at the end of 2020, and campaigners worked to reverse the Global Gag Rule US President Donald Trump signed on his first day in office – it prevents organisations receiving US aid abroad to use any of it for providing abortion services. The death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 2020 reminded us of the ongoing importance of women’s rights. And in the same year, home abortions – performed using pills which can be self-administered under medical advice – rose during the coronavirus crisis.

For many, such an option is simply not available.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that between 2015 and 2019, 73.3 million abortions – safe and unsafe – were performed worldwide. Reproductive rights organisation Marie Stopes International estimates that 35 million abortions a year are unsafe.  “An abortion is unsafe when it is carried out either by a person lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards, or both.” (WHO definition)

Tens of thousands of women and girls die every year as a result of unsafe procedures, yet abortion remains a taboo topic. Organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières and Marie Stopes International (top image) continue to highlight the integrated medical and social importance of access to reproductive services including safe abortion with their campaigns. It remains to be seen whether the topic crosses the barrier into more mainstream health and inclusivity areas 



The COVID situation accelerated and accentuated many social tendencies, including the closing down of personal freedoms and privacy. The narrative around the coronavirus in the media most people are most exposed to was fairly uniform in 2020, passing from facts to fears to requirements via public service announcements (PSAs) and advertising/marketing as well as the news. Those who questioned the narrative were generally labelled with derogatory terms such as ‘anti-vaxxers/maskers’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’, creating an unfavourable environment for balanced challenge.

(Image: US actor Harrison Ford voicesPSA for vaccines)

Intensive data-farming and decision-making can lead to dehumanisation. The treatment of humans as merely statistics to be manipulated is a tendency which is reflected particularly clearly in advertising. Nowadays most advertisers strive to present themselves as beneficially on-trend and socially responsible, but still rely on data to a large degree. The pattern of exchanging personal data and individual agency for the latest tech – or the ability to move around freely – will certainly grow aggressively in 2021, with campaigns presenting tech-led products especially as conduits to freedom, health and happiness.



In a world where so much advertising focus is on denying our own mortality through the peddling of youth and fitness products, COVID-19 provided a sharp jerk on the reality leash. Death figures were served up day after day in 2020, almost like a new kind of stock market, giving many cause to face a hitherto largely avoided taboo topic.

Spanish processed meats company Campofrio delivered a humorous parable campaign that got a warm reception from the general public. In it, an actor playing the Grim Reaper gets locked out of rehearsal and goes wandering about trying to attract people's attention but nobody can or wants to see him.

"They prefer to life as if I don't exist," he exclaims at one point. On his travels he encounters various situations where people are beginning to live life to the full apparently in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus situation, prompting Death to grumble that he'd had to have everyone locked down to make them realise the joys of being alive.

The upcoming year could see the advertising industry embracing the shift in perceptions to help us all accept the inevitable – though not before time.


Digital footprint

It’s an uncomfortable fact that even as we stress out over climate change and the degradation of the planet, we’re all complicit. Highly creative ads glorifying the multiple attributes of smartphones, tech wearables and other sexy digital devices pour towards us in tsunamis that can wash over the waves of warnings about associated damage to the environment and human health.

Carbon footprint is a familiar term, but our individual digital footprints – photos, memes, videos, un-deleted emails – are burning up unimaginable amounts of energy through monster servers as the tech giants place every possible ‘convenience’ in our hands.

Non-governmental organisation Greenpeace lays out the implications of our shift to cloud computing in this 2020 report, while the UN’s Our World provides background in this 2010 study of digital waste.

Will consumers – increasingly known as people – wise up to the issue of digital footprint, at the corporate, government and individual levels? How might that impact on the response to the advertising of the Internet of Things (IoT), convenience services like Amazon, and apparently clean technologies?



The Black Lives Matter #BLM movement of 2020 was an accelerator for awareness-building, and we saw several noteworthy campaigns related to the ongoing issue of racism.

US sports giant Nike turned its galvanising message of 'Just Do It' on its head in the wake of protests across the USA sparked by the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer, and unconscious bias was addressed in ads such as in this 'It's Not a Gun' 2020 US campaign.

While British actor David Oyelowo said that “Nowhere on earth has been better at covering up racism than Great Britain”, supermarket chain Tesco delivered an upbeat promotion for its multi-skin tone plasters

Be it political activism – which only works for certain brands, as Thomas Kolster points out in his book ‘The HeroTrap’ – or everyday solutions like shaded Band-Aids, we’re expecting to see a lot more activity around this movement in 2021.



Omg, seriously??? Yes, it’s really, really, REALLY hard to find any advertising at all around something which directly affects more than half the population, and indirectly affects the rest. In fact, we have no mainstream ads to show as examples. There’s this LadyCare ad from 2018 and the Holland & Barrett ‘Me.No. Pause’ campaign from 2019.

But, the tide is turning as it sets in that this is a prime opportunity for creatives to provide useful, compelling ads for myriad products and services in an inexplicably under-served area.

I said all this last year. Copy and paste. Somebody send me something that proves the tide is turning. Please.

  (Image: Elzbieta Wakeling, actor/model on Mandy)




Posted by Tree Elven on 04/01/2021

Keywords: Taboos, Taboo Topics 2021Tree Elven, abortion services, reproductive rights, personal freedoms, privacy, death, digital footprint, racism, menopause advertising, taboos in advertising 2021

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