“Mate. Mate. Have you heard the news, mate?”
“What mate? You mean about the outsourced migrant workers who clean for Ogilvy UK, which identifies as an ‘anti-racist’ ad company, going on strike last month over their low wages and lack of decent sick pay?”
“Nah mate. Ogilvy has done a campaign for Sadiq Khan, to get men to call each other out on sexism and misogyny. They even got that geezer Romesh Ranganathan to do a stand-up set about it. If your mates are doing or saying sexist stuff, you need to ‘say maaate to a mate’.”
Sorry for that. But it should be emphasised how strange and awful this new anti-misogyny campaign from Sadiq Khan’s office is. As well as stand-up, it includes a media partnership with LADbible – which used to post soft porn to Facebook before a rebrand in 2017. On the campaign’s website there’s an interactive video of some young guys playing Fifa and exchanging sexist banter. At any time, you can hit a button marked “MAAATE”, and it cuts to one of the lads piping up and rebuking his friends. If you don’t, you get told off by a different character at the end.
More publicly obvious are the posters and billboards that have gone up across the city. “MAAATE” looms from screens over the Eros fountain at Piccadilly Circus. “MAAATE” confronts you on a poster as you get off the Tube. Deciding not to take the quick way home, because if you get mugged in that dark alleyway the Met will never get your phone back, you walk down the main road, below a billboard that bellows: “MAAATE”.
Ogilvy is pleased with its work. “I hate to call it a film because it’s more than that. It’s a tool for change,” reads a statement by the creative directors. Someone at the firm’s behavioural science department says they spent hours in male-dominated places like barbershops and gyms “in order to truly understand the male psyche”.
Well, they failed; this campaign does not understand the male psyche. Its appeal relies on the familiarity through which friends can successfully change each other’s behaviour. A dispatch from the Mayor of London’s office has no chance of successfully appropriating that familiarity. Indeed, the fact the message comes from a position of bureaucratic authority might even put men off it.
[See also: Is Sadiq Khan’s re-election campaign in trouble?]
Then there’s the visual language: hammers, weights and steamrollers obliterating sexist banter, and thereby replicating the dynamic of masculine dominance that might see a man override a woman in conversation. The matey, “maaate”-y tone almost plays down misogyny – if a friend harasses a woman or says that she’s “asking for it in that skirt”, stronger stuff should be in order than blokey piousness. According to the Mayor of London’s website, if you “say maaate to a mate” you can interrupt “without making things awkward, ruining the moment or putting your friendship at risk”. Is sexual harassment not the kind of thing that should put a friendship at risk?
Effectiveness within the ostensible target market might not be Ogilvy’s main aim. Ads of this kind – particularly those that tout the virtuous brand “purpose” of a company, such as similar ones for Gillette in 2019 – seem built to be shared on LinkedIn by HR officers, rather than to sell stuff or impart a message to the public. The brand and their agency get praise from the industry, and possibly pick up an award or two at Cannes come the summer. Campaigns for public bodies, like the “MAAATE” one, are the perfect things for an agency to have in its portfolio when it next hustles for work on, say, improving a car company’s green credentials.
This expensive, probably ineffective publicity drive also tells us something about the office of the mayor of London. Despite having the largest personal mandate of any British politician, Khan’s powers do not extend much beyond transport policy.
His push for rent controls, which he can’t implement himself, is being ignored by the national Labour Party. Progressive ideas such as pedestrianising Oxford Street simply bounce off the bulletproof nimbyism of London’s local councils. Even the authority to hire the head of the troubled Metropolitan Police ultimately lies with the home secretary. Though Khan effectively forced Dame Cressida Dick to resign as Met commissioner last year by withdrawing his confidence in her, it was Priti Patel who picked her replacement, Mark Rowley.
Given his relative powerlessness, it’s unsurprising that Khan focuses on loud public awareness campaigns. His predecessors, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, positively revelled in the showman side of the job, after all. The “MAAATE” posters do no real harm, but they are galling, for a properly empowered, properly led City Hall could do many things to make women’s lives better.
Build housing, so women don’t have to stay in toxic relationships because they can’t afford to rent on their own. Build a police force that solves crimes rather than commits them; that doesn’t ignore the rapes committed by its own officers; and that is trusted enough for women to report sexual assault to it. Instead, we get a single, hectoring word, elongated as if to stretch over the holes in a creaky municipal government.