How advertising has become an agent of social change
Marketing and advertising play a huge role in shaping our society — the way we see, think, understand and act. With over $180 billion spent on US advertising last year, the average American is exposed to over an hour of TV commercials, and as many 5,000 ads every day. The advertising we’re constantly consuming paints a picture of society, thus shaping how we view ourselves and what many aspire to.
When advertising promotes unhealthy behaviors it can have very real, very negative effects. It has hurt our children, the American Psychological Association concluded, finding a link between increased unhealthy food advertisements and rising childhood obesity, and connection between tobacco and alcohol advertisements and underage smoking and drinking.
Even more profound than influencing our consumption behavior, advertising has the ability to shape our aspirations. A great deal of damage can be done in setting unhealthy or unattainable expectations. Mainstream advertising often depicts women as over-sexualized, underweight, and photoshopped to ‘perfection’. Studies have found that exposure to this unrealistic, thin, sexualized ideal is linked to disordered eating attitudes, lower self-esteem, negative mood and depressive symptoms among our young girls and women.
Given all this, it’s no wonder advertising is generally seen as a negative influence. But it doesn’t have to be. While unrealistic, unhealthy images can have very real, harmful effects, advertising with positive messages, depicting an inclusive picture of society can also impact us for good.
Now, I know what you may be thinking — this isn’t the beginning of a naive tangent calling for altruistic corporations to overhaul the capitalist system as we waltz into the sunset. Instead, I invite you to take a look at how the evolution of the advertising industry — and our relationship with it — has created an environment where inclusive portrayals of society actually benefit companies’ bottom line. In identifying these places where ‘for good’ and ‘for-profit’ overlap, we can unlock powerful engines for positive change.
The Evolution of the Advertising Industry
The advertising industry has come a long way over the past century. Initially, things were simple and straightforward; advertisements told us about products and features. We begin with this early day automobile advertisement. With a revolutionary product, and very little competition for their customer’s attention, the makers of the Winton Motor Carriage only needed to list the straight facts and features to be successful.
But as the world evolved, so did the competition. Billboards, radio, TV all compete for potential customers’ attention, and more companies started making similar products, vying to fix the same problems and meet the same needs. To stand out, advertisers had to adjust their focus from the ‘what’ to the ‘why.’ Crafting stories behind their goods to connect on an emotional level, it became all about how the product makes us feel. In 1984, Coca Cola famously invited us to ‘have a Coke and smile’ with Mean Joe Green.
As the battle for consumer dollars and attention intensified, advertising has become more focused on brand than the product. Michael Jordan dares us to be legendary, and Google shows us how inspirational we are through our communal search. Neither of these ads mention a single feature or benefit of the product, because it’s not about the fit of the shoe, or the speed of the search. It’s about building our connection with the brand, and what it says about us. It’s about how the brand makes us feel.
With social media, the entire scene changed. It prompted companies to shift from delivering monologues to engaging in conversation, transforming the relationship between brand and buyer. This new dynamic has made brands more human in the process, as they focus on creating conversations around shared values. Take Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign, which went viral before being featured during the SuperBowl, and currently has over 55 million views. Never referencing feminine hygiene, Always focuses purely on the issue of female empowerment, using the ad to begin “an epic battle” for young girls everywhere by “showing them that doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.”
Always goes beyond what a brand says about you; it’s about identifying shared goals and contributing to a higher purpose. You care about empowering girls? Great! You can share their ad to ‘inspire girls everywhere’, tweet the ‘amazing things you do’ with #LikeAGirl, and ‘stand up for girls’ confidence at Always.com. Now it’s a conversation, and that’s exactly what Always, and the other companies joining in this form of values-based advertising, are looking for. Very few people care about tampons, but equality and female empowerment? Now that’s topic people get excited about. Or more accurately, that’s a topic Always’ target audience gets excited about. And this is why it works; Always is able to use shared values to create a bond with their consumers and community at-large, thereby advertising both for-profit and for-good.
‘Fem-vertising’ continues to gain steam because it makes business sense. Commercial motivations don’t diminish the benefits of feeding our children more empowering messages, and less underweight, oversexualized ideals. As a matter of fact, they amplify the amount of manpower and resources corporations are willing to spend on such positive causes. It is at this point, where for-profit and for-good overlap, where we can impact the greatest change.
In this case, fem-vertising is a pretty safe bet. Everyone has a mother, daughter, sister or female friend they care about, and people aren’t out protesting the idea of girls and women having more confidence. Most people either agree with the cause or are apathetic to it altogether. But values-based advertising isn’t confined to issues as clear cut as female empowerment, and it is in this gray area that it has the greatest potential impact.
Values-Based Advertising: For-Profit and For Good
When advertising focuses on empowering and accepting groups that are less relatable or less accepted, there is both greater risk, and greater reward. America has long prided itself in being a melting pot, where people from all countries, races and religions are welcome to come pursue a better life. But in reality, the welcome hasn’t always been so warm for those who fall outside the norm. This has been true for just about every major immigrant group to come to the United States, beginning with the Irish in the 19th Century. We see resistance to homegrown difference as well, as illustrated by the prejudice interracial and same-sex couples continue to face on a regular basis. As much America prides itself on our melting pot mentality, social acceptance and inclusion of ‘new’ groups is a slow, and often painful process. But this is where the battle for brand identity and consumer loyalty can actually play a positive role in the process.
Cheerios didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into when they first featured an interracial family to promote the heart-healthy cereal during the summer of 2013. The racist backlash to the ad was so intense that Cheerios disabled the comments section on their YouTube channel — offering the public a glimpse into the prejudice mixed race families have to contend with, and sparking a national conversation. Cheerios also saw an outpouring of support from consumers applauding the commercial, and a passionate defense against the backlash with people standing up for interracial families everywhere. Journalists and bloggers continued the conversation, over eight million people watched kids reactions to the commercial’s controversy, and it even inspired an online community of interracial families dedicated to publicly reflecting the changing face of the American family. What began as a heartwarming cereal commercial ended up leading to a national discussion on race relations.
It also contributed to Cheerios’ bottom line. In the weeks following the commercial’s release, brand exposure went up 77% and Cheerios CEO Ken Powell highlighted a boost to sales from new advertising (though not citing this ad specifically). In fact, Cheerios liked the results of the commercial so much, they brought the fictitious interracial family back together, shelling out $4 million for a 30-second spot in the 2014 Super Bowl — this time expanding the family.
Since Cheerios’ ad came out, we have seen a number of the most traditionally American brands embracing the ‘new’ American family. They are making a statement: this is the American dream, and it includes you. Featuring families often overlooked and ignored by the media, Honey Maid put single dads, biracial couples, LGBT families and tattoos at the front and center of its “This is Wholesome” campaign.
With this, Honey Maid is reaching out to the rising number of interracial households (one in 12 American marriages), 20 million single-parent families and over 100,000 same-sex couples raising children in America. They know this message resonates with the halo of support surrounding these groups — their families and friends, as well as the growing portion of the population with socially liberal views. “We’re holding a mirror up to America and celebrating all-American families,” explained Gary Osifchin, senior marketing director who launched this campaign: “We’re on a journey here where we are very much showing America who they are…and that’s resonating.” And resonate it did. After the commercial aired in March, sales jumped 7% in June and July, the online content had 12 million views and Google searches for the name Honey Maid rocketed 400%.
Chevrolet embraced the changing face of the all-American family with an inclusive ad promoting the Chevy Traverse “for whatever shape your family takes.” Coca Cola ruffled feathers in featuring a multi-lingual, diverse SuperBowl ad and claiming that this is why #AmericaIsBeautiful. Yet again, we rewarded companies for their inclusion, as Chevy saw a boost in positive sentiment towards the car company among consumers, and young people ages 19 to 24 bought Coca-Cola products 20 percent more often than they did the month before.
When brands paint an inclusive picture of society, they play a role in redefining what is considered mainstream, sparking national conversations and speeding the social acceptance of marginalized groups. “TV commercials are a culturally powerful force, shaping society and giving voice to those outside the mainstream,” CEO and Forbes contributor Avi Dan explained, arguing that “advertising can move public opinion faster, and farther, than any other influencing factor.” While advertisers aren’t generally the ones leading the pack on social change, once there is enough public support for issues that align with companies’ core values, the risk is outweighed by reward and advertising can work as an accelerator for social progress.
Giving a Voice to Those Outside the Mainstream: The LGBT Community
We’ve seen this idea in action with the evolution of LGBT inclusion in American media and society. Over 20 years ago, Ikea ran the first mainstream commercial to feature a gay couple for the same reasons major brands like Honey Maid, Cheerios and Chevrolet focus on diversity today; it reflected their customers and aligned with their values. While the ad had a limited release — only playing in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC after 10pm — this did little to alleviate the backlash they received. Ikea continued running the ad despite petitions, boycotts, and even a bomb threat, but no one else stepped up to follow their lead. At least not immediately.
The risks associated with backlash deterred companies from outwardly marketing to LGBT families in the mainstream media. However, some companies began trying to connect with LGBT consumers without ruffling any feathers through coding and ‘gay-vague’ ads. Subaru used stealthy references that spoke to the LGBT community without being recognized by the rest of society with slogans like “Get out. And stay out.” and “Entirely comfortable with its orientation”. VW chose the much publicized coming out episode of “Ellen” to introduce its gay vague “Sunday Afternoon” ad, which could easily be seen as featuring roommates or boyfriends, depending on the viewer. A small step towards inclusion, here we find the LGBT community is spoken to, but not seen.
All of this changed during the first decade of the 21st Century. We fear what we don’t know, and as the new millenium brought an explosion of LGBT visibility — from TV shows and commercials, to celebrities and elected officials — the community went from foreign to familiar for many Americans. As the general public became more supportive of LGBT rights, companies found themselves facing lower risk and greater reward for supporting the community. We saw a rise in benefits and protections for LGBT employees, and as gay marriage became a national debate, a host of major corporations came out to publicly support the cause, citing it as aligning with their core values of equality.
Nothing better illustrates the progress made over the last 20 years than last year’s Barilla controversy. When asked about featuring a gay couple in his company’s advertising, Guido Barilla noted that he would never do so, and that “if [gays] don’t like it, they can go eat another brand.” Barilla found itself in hot water, as consumers and universities started boycotts, and competitors like Bertolli Germany jumped on the opportunity to offer a more forward-thinking brand with “pasta and love for all!”
The interesting piece here isn’t just the public backlash, but the corporate change that followed. While many doubt Barilla’s motivations, their transformation has been impressive. Having “learned a great deal about the true definition and meaning of family”, Barilla engaged on a huge diversity initiative, going from a -25 on the Human Rights Council’s Corporate Equality Index in 2013, to scoring a perfect 100 in 2014. During that timeframe the pasta company expanded health benefits for transgendered employees and their families, donated to gay rights causes and included a lesbian couple in a promotional video. A long ways from the backlash Ikea faced in 1994, today we find that LGBT exclusion is the dangerous move for a company’s brand.
Increased public support, combined with the hunger to connect with consumers over shared values, has vastly expanded the overlap between for-profit and for-good in LGBT advertising. A far cry from the gay-vague days, companies like Target, Tiffany’s and Hallmark are featuring same-sex couple’s love stories and families. Sharing intimate and relatable moments, these ads humanize LGBT individuals for those with minimal exposure to the community.
Changing Our Reality
The advertising industry will never act as the first pioneer instigating social change-but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an important part of the process. We consume massive amounts of advertising day in and day out, and when this content promotes an inclusive picture of society, marketing and advertising can work as an accelerator for social progress. It’s value is not in starting the fire, but in fanning the flames.
Twenty years ago it was unimaginable that Hallmark would be featuring a lesbian love story in its national Valentine’s Day campaign, or more importantly, that these women would have the right to marry in 36 states, with the majority of Americans (52%) supporting it. Advertising’s cultural power stems from its ability to shape our perception and give a voice to those outside the mainstream. So what social issues will our advertising address over the next twenty years? To figure that out, we must first stop and ask ourselves — who aren’t we listening to today?
About the author, Charly Jaffe: Hailing from sunny San Diego, Charly graduated from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and currently works as an account strategist helping agencies and small businesses leverage Google’s online advertising platform. Passionate about social progress and global development, she loves exploring new ways we can use for-profit systems to promote the greater good.