Lush comes under fire for #SpyCops campaign Article icon

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Cosmetics company Lush has come under fire following the launch of a new campaign aimed at raising awareness of the ‘ongoing undercover policing scandal, in which some police officers are infiltrating the homes and lives of non-criminals, and the aftermath of these actions’.

Lush joined forces with Police Spies Out of Lives, a support group for legal actions against undercover policing, to launch the Spy Cops campaign, which is scheduled to run from 1 June until 18 June, saw Lush stores cover windows with police tape brandishing the message ‘Police have crossed the line’ and adopt images of police officers saying ‘Paid to lie’. Boxes also appeared in windows saying ‘Police spies out of lives’, ‘#Spycops Inquiry: Truth or cover up?’ and ‘Spied on for taking a stand.’ Lush customers are encouraged to visit their nearest shop and sign a postcard addressed to the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid.

Within 12 hours of the campaign's launch, the hashtag #FlushLush had been used almost 2,000 times, including a post by Che Donald, vice-chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, who criticised the campaign and announced that neither he, his family or friends would ever use Lush products again,

Lush explained its stance in a post on its website entitled Exposing the spy who loved me. It said: ‘For the women (and potentially men) who have suffered these abuses, and who have been deceived into becoming props in undercover identities, this latest campaign will be a way to demand genuine accountability from the State.’

An inquiry into undercover policing was launched in 2015, and only last month a Metropolitan Police officer was sacked for gross misconduct after having a relationship with a woman in the campaign group he was targeting.

But whilst companies have increasingly been encouraged to speak out on social and ethical issues, many are perplexed by Lush’s campaign, which appears for the most part to have come from nowhere. For some, it seems like a weird fit for a brand that mostly deals in bath bombs and skincare.

Stephanie Bailey, managing director at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, says: ‘It’s interesting because if you look at the audience that the Lush brand represents, it’s quite a young demographic and they want companies to speak up but I would say that [Lush] has misjudged this. The issue should be in line with the company values and what it believes in. I’m struggling to see where this aligns with them. Just on face value, it seems quite out there.’

Sandra Macleod, chief executive of Echo Research, agrees, adding: ‘I think there is a definite time and a place for chief executive and corporate activism and leadership to drive important change. It is right to stand up when it aligns with the organisation’s purpose and values, including its commitment to the community it serves. It is not right if it offends staff, customers or the wider community.

‘As a publicity stunt – this is getting everyone talking about it, so you may say it is achieving the limelight it is no doubt seeking. In terms of impacting its reputation, it risks alienating far more than aligning the very groups it needs to ensure its success ahead. I think this campaign has crossed that line.’

Despite the public outcry, which has seen the campaign described in terms ranging from ‘bizarre’ to ‘terrible’, Lush insists that the campaign isn’t anti-police. ‘It’s to highlight the abuse that people face when their lives have been infiltrated by undercover police,’ it said. 

Much of the outrage stems not from this issue itself but from whether that distinction has been made clear enough in stores. Far from shocking people into taking notice, Bailey points out that ‘the initial reaction is that it targets all police. It looks like a wider condemnation and that’s where it crosses the line’.

‘I think people will have sympathy with Lush once they realise what it is doing but I’m not sure shop-fronts are the right channel for this message,’ she adds.

 However, Bailey does note that a Twitter storm, such as the one Lush is currently weathering, is not necessarily reflective of long-lasting reputational damage. ‘Twitter is a knee-jerk reaction, people instantly sharing their opinions so it’s not necessarily reflective of considered opinion. The big thing will be to see how Lush reacts. I know it has released a statement, and that is robust on this issue, but it does need to take on board what people are saying.

Indeed, Lush responded to the furore with a statement. ‘This is not an anti-state/anti-police campaign. We are aware that the police forces of the UK are doing an increasingly difficult and dangerous job whilst having their funding slashed. Our campaign is to highlight this small and secretive subset of undercover policing that undermines and threatens the very idea of democracy.’

The fact that Lush had to clarify its position, however, is viewed by some as proof that its campaign has faltered. ‘It’s not clear enough if you have to explain it,’ says Jon Chandler, chief executive at Quiller Consultants. ‘[Lush] needs to bring its consumers with it. If people have missed the origin of the problem - it’s not necessarily common knowledge - then how are they supposed to engage with it? It’s a difficult issue but [Lush] hasn’t explained the story.’

This is not the first time the brand has ruffled feathers with its campaigns. Six years ago, 24 year old performance artist Jacqueline Traide was given injections, smothered in creams, shaved and forcibly fed in the window of Lush’s branch on Regent Street, London to highlight the issue of animal testing.

Co-founder Mark Constantine rejected criticism that the performance had gone too far, claiming that it reminded people what animals can endure. In an interview with the BBC in 2015, he said: ‘If you're going to shove your head above the parapet, you are going to be sniped at.’

Past campaigns targeted detentions at Guantanamo Bay, which used the strapline ‘Fair Trial My Arse’, and animal testing in China. But it does not seem to be the issues that are the problem, merely the execution. ‘It’s a good thing if brands are giving real estate to issues they care about,’ says Chandler. ‘Taking up an ‘unpopular cause’ is a good thing. But this just seems poorly executed.’