On Advertising
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On Advertising

America’s Dark Reality: Brands’ COVID-19, Election, Climate And Social Campaigns Are Our Hope For Change

When the U.S.’s climate inaction is being considered a breach of the constitution, mask wearing has become politicized, and funding toward sectors like education are being cut, we come to expect less from our government. It’s just not working for us. Eight in ten Americans are “dissatisfied” with the state of the U.S., and “government” itself has been named the country’s number one problem since 2017.

If the electees can’t help, perhaps the mascots can. Online brand campaigns, many of which are spilling over in-store and into the streets, are garnering significant traction as they move the needle. For a minute, let’s consider brands having a higher purpose than solely perpetuating consumerism.

They get a bad wrap. And that’s understandable. Corporations’ primary objective is growth for growth’s sake. The only comparison is cancer, as writer Douglas Rushkoff points out. “The American economy demands that businesses take a grow-or-die approach to their industries.”

But we’re at an interesting point in time. When companies, still attempting to grow, are chasing the current desires of consumers, they end up doing good — from addressing public health concerns and voter engagement, to systemic racism in America and our mental wellness. As government institutions fail to sponsor, motivate, serve, and support our global challenges comprehensively, brands are stepping up, despite their “evil intentions.” Maybe it’s time we question that trite characterization.


According to WARC, a marketing research publication, as of this Fall 89% of brands have already created a COVID-19 campaign. While arguably some activations have been innocuous such as Coca-Cola’s socially distance lettering, the company’s foundation has also donated over $50M to COVID-19 relief globally.

It’s not just about the money. Supplemental to their own donations, GAP Inc. has sourced and delivered millions of pieces of PPE to hospital networks and provided storage for emergency supplies in their warehouses. Meanwhile, LVMH and countless other brands have been manufacturing once scarce hand sanitizer, Diageo has supported out of work restaurant industry professionals, YouTube developed a family-oriented Learn@Home education hub, and Peloton offered months of free fitness instruction for those quarantined and struggling with physical activity at home.

Aetna’s recent “Time for Care” campaign was birthed from the finding that nearly 60% of Americans said they’ve canceled or delayed a health care appointment due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19. In addition to free prescription delivery, national television spots, microsites, and digital content urging all to look after themselves, they’re shipping millions of kits that include a thermometer, hand sanitizer and face masks to their members across the country.

On a more creative note, Starbucks unveiled an in-store activation entitled “2m — Safe is the new cool.” Artistically denoting recommended distancing on the floor with entertaining and digitally interactive pieces, Starbucks is effectively nudging behavior, and public health. It’s a non-intrusive, non-politicizing and non-selfish strategy which simply benefits local communities — at scale.

Brands have become culture’s social guardians, yes sometimes obtuse, but consistently intent to do right.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Their end goal is still increased revenue and decreased costs, but these campaigns rooted in humanitarianism are moving the needle in areas that are desperate for funding, innovation and resources. This work is net-positive and COVID-19 campaigns are just one angle…

Social Equity

Since the killing of George Floyd, Walmart and Apple have each pledged to donate $100M to fund centers on racial equity and justice. That’s just two brands of the hundreds who’ve stepped up. The NBA loudly postponed its playoff game as a statement, while other creators, including Sesame Street and Nickelodeon, have produced content raising awareness, featuring activists, and providing both support and resources. Google is currently pointing consumers towards Black-owned businesses, and Yelp is helping label the racist ones. At the risk of turning away consumers with differing values, businesses are doubling down on what’s required — and long overdue — in culture. These brands don’t have to be leaning it, yet they are. And that’s not to sympathize with sterile, faceless corporations, but to acknowledge the reality: there’s no legal obligation… for now.

Climate Crisis

Considering 81% of people globally believe companies should help improve the environment, brands such as Patagonia, Columbia, Nat Geo, REI and Ben & Jerry’s have stepped up to address the Climate Crisis with significant action. Patagonia literally protected land from indigenous people that otherwise would have been turned into a ski resort, Lacoste successfully drew attention to endangered species by replacing its infamous crocodile logo, and The Guardian updated its style guide to intensify writing regarding the climate across its site. After just one year, 93 companies, representing 207 brands, have enrolled in the Global Fashion Agenda, setting a total of 213 unique targets to develop a flourishing circular economy. Again, these are self-induced measures, no matter how late they may be.

Civil Engagement

How about voting? FootLocker is turning more than 2,000 of its stores across the country into registration hubs, and Levis is going all out. They’re hosting live talks with prominent leaders, producing new customizable products, developing PSA’s with Hailey Bieber and Oge Egbuonu, and donating $2.6M across 23 civic engagement organizations. What makes Levis’ work refreshing it that they’re addressing local elections too. Simultaneously, Snapchat has registered over one million young voters — more than half are first-timers — and Uber is providing discounted rides to polling sites and free food to poll workers. We come to realize how sticky the situation really is as Uber simultaneously pushes for Prop 22 and against protections for its gig drivers.

Mental Health

In light of World Mental Health Day, Facebook launched a global Mental Health Hub, providing support to over 2.5B people struggling with anxiety, depression and suicide. This is significant as one-in-four adults with a mental illness report that they are not able to receive the treatment they need. Addressing the stigma, Reddit has also partnered with the Crisis Text Line providing 24/7 support and allowing users to flag and send support to one another. Talkspace has donated 1,000 free months of online therapy to medical workers in the United States, and Nike has designed a shoe with psychotherapist and sneakerhead Liz Beecroft. The proceeds go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This is not superficial, but critical when the government has cut funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration by $600M. What other institutions are addressing this deficit?

There’s of course an irony to these activations. Consumerism has accelerated climate change and social networks have weakened our mental health. Yet in other words, our own frivolous spending and incessant scrolling has gotten us here. Call out Apple’s manufacturer worker conditions, but don’t get upset when an iPhone becomes unaffordable. Without granting amnesty to corporations, it’s worth noting how we the people have an active role in these negative results, but also these positive reparations. If corporations have their foot on the gas, consumers have their hands on the wheel.

Amanda Mull writes in The Atlantic, as our country’s leaders fail to intact change, “corporations with something to sell will seep into the void. And they’ll act out of self-interest.” But this isn’t necessarily a pure negative. As long as that self-interest is tethered to consumers’ current ethics, corporations will be forced to become the drivers of our desired progress.

According to a study by PR firm Cone/Porter-Novelli, 77% of people feel a stronger emotional connection to purpose-driven companies over traditional ones. Further, the same percentage believe companies must do more than just make money; they must positively impact society as well. It’s been projected, brands with a purpose grow 2x faster than those without clear missions.

Today’s consumers have declared their demand: progress. And if brands are to capture their — or, our — dollars, they’ll be obliged to comply. When 85% of Americans expect companies to help address racial inequality, companies will do what’s expected of them at the risk of losing a competitive edge. That’s not bad, that’s good. And they’re already responding.

We’re entering into a new social contract with corporations: we’ll pay their price in exchange for the change we want, and that no one else is giving us.

The archaic bastions of change, city, state and national governments, are cemented in lagging laws, obsolescent ideologies, and ineffective processes. Brands are left as our modern civil servants… even if they ultimately just want our money. So for as long as consumers — or rather, we — maintain and raise our expectations of brands, we still have a fighting chance for the positive change we require.

Matt Klein is a cultural theorist and strategist analyzing the psychosocial implications of our technology to consult on business decisions.



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Matt Klein

Matt Klein

Cultural Theorist + CyberPsychologist + Strategist. Trends Lead at Reddit. Newsletter analyzing the overlooked: Zine.KleinKleinKlein.com