Of Baked Beans and the Rule of Law

In episode 6 of season 5 of TV’s Mad Men, there’s a scene where the ad agency is trying to sell Heinz a vision for one of its more lacklustre products, oven-baked beans. Peggy, who’s running the pitch, moves through her mock-up cards and at a measured pace a story unfolds. No matter how unglamorous the legume, it’s the advertiser’s job to win her audience over through storytelling. In this case, she describes how the youth lean in towards one another around the campfire. With their backs to the lonely night, Heinz beans brings familiarity. The product is nothing less than a surrogate for home. The only true, abiding comfort against the unknown, beanless void.

When Peggy winds down the story (“It’s the beans that brought them together on that cool night at the end of the summer”), and ends with the kicker, (“Home is where the Heinz is”), the Heinz representative clearly does not get the message. The brown-suited man, looking every bit the bean executive, reveals his candid thoughts: “I wish someone was eating beans.”

He doesn’t want a story. He wants to see beans.

In some respects, lawyers are kind of like a 1960s Heinz executive, and important law-related issues are kind of like our beans. We are our product’s biggest fan, but we are also too close to it. We therefore struggle to accept that people might not hold it in the same regard. We don’t really understand why the general public and media don’t seem to care, even when we turn on the talking heads, even when we spell out with orderly, exhaustive clarity just how important the law is. If only the public would rally around legal aid funding, protest legislative limits to judicial discretion, and defend the virtues of a self governing legal profession as we do. If only what we did was enough for them to care.

Earlier last year, here on SLAW, Jordan Furlong addressed the legal profession’s rocky affair with PR campaigns. He took aim at the pointless and self-defeating lawyer image enhancement programs. This sparked a lively discussion on SLAW and offline. Some defended initiatives like www.whyiwenttolawschool.ca. Others were defiant of efforts to soften lawyers’ tough image. As Jordan put it, “What we are called upon to do as lawyers is tough, often unpleasant, and frequently unpopular. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature.”

Fair points, but moving past image enhancement campaigns for a moment, how effective are lawyers as the front men and women for broader justice issues and social causes?

Historically, lawyers have been inherently distrustful of marketing. Hard selling the Rule of Law has never really been our style. Consider the embedded sentiments, and many assumptions, in section 2.1-5 (c) of the Code of Professional Conduct for BC:

A lawyer should make legal services available to the public in an efficient and convenient manner that will command respect and confidence. A lawyer’s best advertisement is the establishment of a well-merited reputation for competence and trustworthiness.

First off, it is long overdue for us to revisit our assumptions about how easy respect and confidence are to “command” of the public. Second, it is arguing from consequences to assert that the best advertising is merely to represent the image of a competent, trustworthy lawyer. Though we may wish it to be so, there is little proof that good publicity follows good deeds. Being plain spoken and frank may in fact have little to do with raising awareness and getting non-lawyers to change their behaviour to support important justice issues.

The plain, honest image should not be dispensed with, mind you. I’m just saying it is nowhere near sufficient to play the marketing game these days. Whether one is selling beans or access to justice, a simple picture of the product is not good enough—if indeed it ever was.

We should be looking at how to sell a story about access to justice, judicial independence, or the Rule of Law in a way that does not just reaffirm lawyers’ self image, but actually alters awareness and behaviour on a grander scale. These stories may be more difficult to hone in on, and we should look for help in framing them.

Amnesty International has a vast catalog of past ads, some of them shocking, and is a good source of inspiration. Many of their ads engage values that are close to those of the legal profession, such as civil liberty, due process for prisoners, etc. Their work is quite powerful.

For a somewhat older list of quality viral public interest ads, see here for a highlight reel that includes ambient ads, i.e. ads with messaging or physical media that works within its physical environment.


  1. Great first post, Nate! It’s lunchtime and, for the first time in forever, I’m hungry for some beans.

    I agree that the legal profession can learn from some of hard-hitting, image-rich “marketing” by organizations like Amnesty International. Just because lawyers are dedicated to the rule of law, doesn’t mean that we need to be staid, conservative and unimaginative in how we present ourselves to the public.

  2. Thanks Jamie. It may take a bencher to make it happen!
    I would even go so far as to say that because we are dedicated to the rule of law, we are bound to engage the public using whatever it takes, within reasonable limits, to ensure true respect and heart-felt desires protect what staid traditions have fostered. It is a fragile construct, and it is being tampered with. Our complacency with tradition will not help it.
    I can’t imagine there is anyone who believes we have gone anywhere near the limits of what we might do to up our messaging game. I would like to see that change, and would be willing to throw my support into that.

  3. Incidentally, DARE is one agency who did some interesting ads for BC Children’s Hospital. Saatchi & Saatchi did some nice work for the Canadian Safe Boating Council. Cossette out of Montreal has done some gripping stuff for Amnesty International.