Garfield, Snoopy and the power of positive subversion

Interbrand London’s Executive Creative Director Sue Daun recently took us through her top picks from the 2014 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Laughter, smiles and even tears (yes, mine) ensued as she wove her way through work such as Lacoste’s epic ‘The Big Leap’ and CNA’s online educational project, ‘Speaking Exchange,’ which connects Brazilian students who want to practice their English with residents of a Chicago retirement home (*cue tears).

But there was one particular piece of work that really stood out for me. ‘Bald Cartoons,’ created by Ogilvy Brazil for GRAACC (Grupo de Apoio ao Adolescente e à Criança com Câncer or Support Group for Children and Adolescents with Cancer), aims to drive home the message that children with cancer deserve to be seen like any other child. The initiative saw more than 40 cartoon characters—including Garfield, Hello Kitty, Snoopy and Popeye—become bald in support of children with cancer.

Observing the work took me back to a moment a couple of years ago when I saw an adorable little girl carrying a backpack featuring Hello Kitty wearing a pair of eyeglasses. Back then, I was struck by the sheer power that lies in using the icons of a certain demographic (or a specific age group) to make unique characteristics (or seemingly ‘negative’ differences) acceptable to others – in this case, kids.

When you consider how an eyeglass-wearing Hello Kitty reframes the very notion of wearing eyeglasses, it’s exciting to think about what other issues could be tackled with a similar approach: Sexuality? Braces? A Garfield that’s more creative than academic (Sir Ken Robinson’s provocative TedTalk, anyone)? A cartoon character that deals with learning difficulties? You can see how this principle of positive subversion could be applied to many other groups, attitudes and causes and the impact it could have.

As marketers, our opportunity lies in changing behaviors and perceptions. Such opportunities are always fascinating, but they are not always as personally rewarding as this strong piece of work by Ogilvy Brazil and the subsequent thoughts it has sparked. To that end, how can we as marketers, apply the way we think and look at the world to create real behavior change in the areas that matter the most?


Strategy Consultant