Advertising still gets a bad rap. Millennials often view the work of our industry as shallow, greedy, and unimaginative: A bore. Older consumers suspect advertising is dishonest and unethical. "But we know this is an unfair assessment of an industry that has been responsible for some of the most influential work of the last few decades. Work that reached outside of the realm of consumerism and into our culture. Work that helped spark movements toward justice, equality, and positive social change. Work that most people don’t associate with the ad industry at all.
Think of how many of today’s ad campaigns feature something other than a white mom and dad and their 2.5 blonde children. It was a significant risk in 1994 when Ikea ran its first commercial featuring a gay couple buying a table. So much so that it only ran in New York and even then only after kids would be in bed. The company had to pull the ad when it received bomb threats to its stores.
As recently as 2013, Cheerios faced ugly, racist backlash when it ran an ad featuring a multi-racial family. But the backlash to the racism was even stronger, the brand gained recognition for it, and the next year ran a Super Bowl spot featuring that very same family who announced they were having a baby and getting a puppy.
In 2015, when All-American brand Campbell’s used two dads and their bad Darth Vader “I am your father” impressions to sell Star Wars-branded cans of soup, it did so with little controversy. (The million moms group did order a boycott, but very few people seemed to notice.)
This wasn’t just ad agencies depicting the changing face of American families; it was ad agencies working alongside activists to help change society’s definition of what makes a family.
The thing is that activists and ad agencies make a great team. They know issues, and we know how to get people to pay attention. When Amnesty International reached out to us in 2013 to raise awareness of the first international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), we seized on one absurd fact – bananas are more strictly regulated than AK-47s. Yes, the issue is far more complicated than bananas, but bananas are funny, and that one statistic goes a long way. Amnesty’s petition got over 1 million signatures, enough to influence then-President Obama to vote yes.
Movement marketing—as it was coined by Scott Goodson, founder of Strawberry Frog, almost thirty years ago—isn’t just for non-profits. Crispin, Porter + Bogusky helped American Express launch Small Business Saturday back in 2010 to respond to the backlash against the commercialization of the holiday season. Big box stores and online shopping were putting local proprietors out of business all over the country as they ran midnight specials and forced their employees to come back to work before the Thanksgiving dinner dishes were over. Consumers didn’t want to reward the corporate greed that put their favorite hardware store out of business — but were financially strapped themselves. By encouraging us to shop small on this one day, Small Business Saturday let us all do good even if we did the rest of our holiday shopping online or at Walmart.
The campaign is overwhelmingly successful — 72% of US consumers know of the holiday (even the Obamas shopped small one Saturday when they were in the White House). In 2016, 112 million people participated, and consumers spent $15.4 billion on that Saturday.
In the right hands, even a “marketing stunt” can make a powerful statement. The statue of Fearless Girl facing the iconic Wall Street bull was the brainchild of two creatives at McCann and designed for State Street Corporation, a wealth management firm. Its intent was being a statement about the lack of leadership roles for women in financial services companies, but it ignited a revolution.
The statue was installed in the middle of the night and was noticed worldwide before the next morning’s opening bell — celebrities, politicians, and tourists took selfies with Fearless Girl and the national conversation about women in business took a new turn. True, the statue was not without its critics. Some derided it as fake feminism while others accused the company of not practicing what it preached after we learned that the company was facing a lawsuit alleging it paid female employees less than their male counterparts (the suit was settled last fall for $5 million). But through all the criticism or because of it, a valuable conversation about women and the workplace was picking up speed in a way that it had not before.
That discussion took yet another turn just a few months later when details about how Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men regularly treated women at work began emerging. These allegations rocked the internet and touched industries from Hollywood to Washington DC, including our own where men in executive positions at large firms have been let go after allegations of sexual misconduct came to light.
The #MeToo movement, which was started over a decade ago by Black activist Tarana Burke, took off like wildfire because of the countless brave women who came forward to tell their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Still, it seems more than possible that the poignant statue of the pony-tailed girl staring down the well-known symbol of male-dominated wealth helped spark that fire and set the stage for this national discussion. (Just this month it was announced that the Fearless Girl would get a permanent home in New York City though she and the bull may be moving.)
We are in a moment. Politics is more divisive than ever, and with the 24-hour news cycle, it can be impossible to escape the contentious discourse even when we’re home with our friends and loved ones. Our country is rehashing issues of race, gender, and relationships. It often seems like we’re taking three steps back for every step forward. Add to that the natural disasters, violence, and human tragedies that have plagued so many parts of the world recently, and it can leave us all feeling a bit of despair.
But I’m an optimist, and I do believe that we can change the world.
As creatives, we all have gifts for telling stories, building brands, and moving culture. I think it’s more important than ever to use these strengths to take on causes we believe in and advance social change. Every agency can and should devote some of its time and talent to issues about which they care. We have the power and the platform to help shape the future.