Jumping on the Social Cause Bandwagon

Back when I was a copywriting puppy, I remember sitting across a suit-filled table from the CMO of a very large airline client. His point? To direct “the agency” (where I worked) that our job was to create advertising that wouldn’t upset, offend or even really get noticed. He explained that when you’re the number one airline in the U.S., there’s no reason to create advertising that stands out. It should blend in.

Safe, vanilla ads it seemed, were how category leaders stayed in the lead.

But these days, it’s not enough for a brand to BE good. More and more people (especially socially-minded Millennials) want to give their hard-earned dollars to brands that DO good. Celebrating controversy has become not only accepted, but also expected. And we’re likely to see it done well—and poorly—in the coming months and years.

It’s a tricky thing, to jump on a bandwagon of a powerful yet divisive cause. In a response to the groundbreaking #MeToo movement, Gillette’s recent revamp of their existing theme line turns a statement into a question: “Is this the best a man can get?” The response was swift—and mixed. According to the Wall Street Journal there were more than 1.6 million mentions on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well as blogs, forums and news sites in the first three days. The results are mixed, and whether it will increase Gillette sales is yet to be seen.

A recent BBC  article (more attention, even overseas!) highlights the global spread of the American Gillette ad, citing a company spokesperson explaining the intention was much more than a video, but rather a “commitment to spark and contribute to positive change through our voice as an advertiser and actions as a brand and a company.”

While a strong, divisive stand is risky, when it truly reflects the beliefs and promise of a brand, the results can be far-reaching. Authenticity, as usual, is the key to success. The powerful, controversial and extremely successful  Nike ad that starred Colin Kaepernick (the currently unemployed 49ers quarterback and strong voice in the Black Lives Matter movement) was ultimately very successful for their core user. Standing their ground in the early days as a few vocalusers burned their Nike items online, Nike offered up a “How to burn our products safely” response.

Like Dove’s longtime efforts around Real Beauty, a potentially controversial positioning that aligns with a brand is a powerful strategy. I have no doubt that we’ll see brands everywhere jump on this latest marketing bandwagon. And like all popular ideas, some will succeed with a social message that resonates with their brand and their customers, while others, unfortunately, will fall on their borrowed interest faces.