Brands up their game in ethical advertising
5 December 2016 11:17am
It’s difficult to explain most adverts to my four-year-old son. Ads that tell him that pink is for girls, girls are for boys, and boys are superheroes in the making. Instead, I encourage him to ask questions about what those “pictures” are trying to tell him.
On the Underground recently, he spotted an advert featuring a young woman in bed, surrounded by teddy bears. So many teddy bears, in fact, she needs to put her extra ones into storage (the storage company being the advertiser). My son asks: “They’re saying she’s greedy?”
“Yes, yes they are. But not deliberately.”
This kind of excess is something consumers, at any age, are increasingly disinterested in. They were never stupid but now they are more savvy. Consumers don’t want advertisers to lie to them. They don’t want advertisers to sell them stuff they don’t need. And, more than ever, they’d like their advertisers to be socially aware.
That may be why 2015 has been dubbed the year of the feelgood ad. Campaigns over the past year have been stuffed full of cute animals, charming children and tear-jerking good deeds. John Lewis’s Christmas ad didn’t pack the punch it usually does because so many other brands are playing the “warm fuzzies” game. But manipulating sentimentality is no longer enough.
“It seems to me that ever since the crash of 2008, the straightforward capitalist commercial model has got a pretty poor reputation,” said Lucinda Broadbent, co-founder of Glaswegian company Media Co-op. “People are looking for alternatives, and it’s about time.”
Media Co-op, a workers co-operative, is on a very short list of media production companies who can call themselves a social enterprise. They use advertising to tackle social problems ranging from domestic violence to improving public health and reinvest back into their business and community. In their latest work, a two-minute film called A Strong Man, refugee men from the Maryhill Integration Network call on other men to end violence against women.
Of course, delivering do-good campaigns is far easier when the clients served exist entirely for that purpose. But can advertising change the world for the better when it’s also trying to turn a profit?
Broadbent says: “A lot of people working in the media are very principled and go into it because they want to communicate or they want to express their creativity. But I suppose because there is a lot of money to be made, the industry has attracted financially motivated people.”
The good news is that principled professionals are now peeking above the parapet. And it’s starting to show. It’s not only their ethics talking, it’s because consumers are responding. Millennials in particular are demanding that businesses take on the bigger issues like climate change, social equality and animal rights.
Naysayers step aside. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not a fad. It’s not even a differentiator; it’s merely the price of entry. According to the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2015, most millennials believe that businesses should make a positive impact on their community and the world at large.
So it’s no surprise that more companies are lining up to sell sustainable products, reduce their carbon footprint, support charitable causes and develop socially astute campaigns that inspire. #LikeAGirl for Always, Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches and Made of More by Guinness have shone a spotlight on the powerful messages advertisers can dream up and deliver. In doing so, they have created an audience that feels good about buying their products and then takes to Twitter to say how good they feel. Emirates’ diva-inspired advert starring Jennifer Aniston, on the other hand, did not. Neither did Bloomingdale’s.
“Consumers around the world are saying loud and clear that a brand’s social purpose is among the factors that influence purchase decisions,” said Amy Fenton, global leader of public development and sustainability at Nielsen. “This behaviour is on the rise and it provides opportunities for meaningful impact in our communities, in addition to helping to grow share for brands.”
The numbers add up. Neilsen’s global retail analysis shows increased sales for brands with sustainability claims on packaging or active marketing of CSR efforts. What’s more, 55% of global online consumers across 60 countries say they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact. On top of this, The 2015 Brand Footprint report published by Kantar Worldpanel shows that brands with a social conscience grew in popularity, Dove among them.
Admittedly, the teddy bear storage dilemma advertised by Lovespace was harmless enough. But given it ran in the same month that Project Paddington collected over 30,000 teddy bears across the UK and delivered them to refugee children, they may have missed the mark.
“It’s no longer a question of whether consumers care about social impact. Consumers do care and show they do through their actions,” says Fenton. “Now the focus is on determining how your brand can effectively create shared value by marrying the appropriate social cause and consumer segments.”
Coming on 20 years in the ad game, it will be hard for me to look at an advert without seeing the product being pushed – which, of course, is rather the point. But I am starting to feel optimistic about what the future can hold. A future where advertisers can sell products along with ideas they actually believe in. Ideas that can spark interesting conversations with my young son that go beyond the things he can buy and extend to the wider world he lives in.
Marcie MacLellan is head of content and production at Frank & Lively, a digital content agency based in East London. You can follow her on Twitter @marciemaclellan.