This Ad Agency Says It’s Time for Brands to Start Engaging With Their Trolls

hasan & partners argues for embracing satire

CANNES, France—Finnish artist Jani Leinonen is every consumer brand's worst nightmare, but even he thinks the world's biggest brands need to engage with their most aggressive detractors.

Last fall, the activist artist—who has exhibited at Banksy's anti-Disney project, Dismaland—earned attention from this publication and others for a spoof campaign in which Kellogg's mascot Tony the Tiger "helps" some former fans who have fallen on hard times and become drug users, prostitutes and corrupt police officers.

Frosted Flakes' parent brand was not at all amused. "It took 24 hours for Kellogg's to shut all of our accounts down in total silence," Leinonen said today at a Cannes Lions event hosted by hasan & partners. "Nobody contacted me, and they released a really minor 'no comment' response."

Hasan & partners founder and chairman Ami Hasan thinks the company should have taken the opposite approach. "Shutting up when something earns lots of media coverage is not the way to act," he told the crowd at an event called "Can Trolling Be a Positive Force in Advertising?"

"You can't control it, but you can react the right or wrong way," Hasan said.

In other words, trolls will strike whether marketers like it or not. Leinonen earned even more attention for a 2010 stunt in which he and his collaborators "kidnapped and beheaded" Ronald McDonald. Fox News' Megyn Kelly said the stunt "went too far."

So is Leinonen a professional troll? He's certainly not the advertising industry's No. 1 fan. "When I look at advertising, it's like looking at Lehman Brothers' annual report," he said at the event. "It's all fine, amazing, then it almost crashed the world. … Why is it so difficult to be honest about these things? [Businesses] always make the argument that 'We're only here to make money,' but the world knows this isn't true."

McDonald's never responded to Leinonen either, and he ended up with a fine and a 60-day jail sentence. But hasan & partners CEO and chief creative officer Eka Ruola said such brands should "never try to hide" because "they're out in the open anyway." Instead, he argued, they should be prepared and even embrace the satire.

At least some industry leaders have a sense of humor about the trend: In order to promote the event, former Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide creative director Bob Isherwood agreed to be "kidnapped" by a group calling itself the Advertising Liberation Army.

"The reason why I use these brands is that they are like building blocks of our identities," said Leinonen. "It's a global language … that presents a polished, nice really happy world. This is just me bringing in more human elements of sadness, depression and things the commercial world doesn't want to talk about."

It's hard to imagine brands releasing such downbeat campaigns anytime soon. But Hasan and Ruola think companies have no choice but to engage, however unflattering the results may be. Quite a few consumers share Leinonen's point of view.

"My idea is social responsibility," he said. "Instead of moving to the countryside to become a farming hippie and only consume products I make myself—which wouldn't change anything—I make art."

Ruola ended the session by saying, "Keep your friends close. Keep your trolls closer."