Commercial Without a Cause: Why a Brand Can’t Change the World With an Ad

By Guest Comment

This is a guest post by Fluid associate director of data analytics and former Goodby Silverstein & Partners analyst Rigel Cable.

Judging by the Twitter uproar, the biggest marketing fumble of Super Bowl 2018 was the Dodge Ram ad that featured a voiceover from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Feb. 4, 1968 sermon “Drum Major Instinct.” Many asked “how could a car company use the inspirational words of a civil rights leader to promote a truck?”

There’s no doubt that marketers see political activism as a “zeitgeist” or cultural trend worth connecting to, since typically a cultural connection makes ads more impactful. There have been too many times in the last few years where brands tried to capture the energy and emotion of activism around the country–protests related to Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, immigration, the LGBTQ community, and other equal rights movements. Less than a year ago, a Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner suggested sharing a can of Pepsi could solve all the nation’s problems, and trivialized these political movements.

A community’s drive for survival should not be commercialized into marketing campaigns. There is a bold line (not even a fine line!) of distinction between co-opting these movements and joining them. At an extreme, this trend can be seen as the worst thrust of capitalism: an attempt to make money off of human pain. At best, it’s seen as tone deaf.

What could be done differently?

It’s unfortunate when brands make a stumble, because it can cause a lot of stress for the marketers involved and can offend groups of people.  So here are a few ideas about how to set up for success.

  1. Clients and agencies must bring in diverse perspectives. Having diversity of background and opinion at ad agencies is part of why clients rely on them in the first place. Agencies should be able to gauge if a message is culturally conscious and help clients avoid a misstep. This means employing people of color, women, LGBTQ people, Muslim people, and differently abled people in senior positions. It requires asking for outside opinions, and taking the time to listen to others and be self-reflective.
  2. The storytelling has to be true. In marketing, we talk a lot about “storytelling.” It’s one thing to tell a good story, but it’s another thing to tell a true story. We must make sure that the branding messages and ideas that we put into campaigns can be grounded into the products they represent. Cinematics can be beautiful. Editing can be flawless. Huge budgets can be spent. But at the end of the day, the idea being shared must truly connect back to the core product and its meaning.
  3. Let others speak for you. In the age of social media and with the pervasiveness of mobile phone usage, it’s not the brand’s job to speak for society. Individuals speak for themselves every day on social media. Instead of focusing on messages that try to represent a community, invite them to the conversation instead. This could be a call to action with social media, a drive for UGC, or including influencers. Opinions are complex, and it shouldn’t be the brand’s job to synthesize all of them.

So, how can brands approach social justice, cause marketing, and diversity in a nonpolarizing way?

Personally, as a marketer and activist, I believe that these topics are best suited for funded programs rather than ads. This is because these movements, at the end of the day, are about real world problems, and therefore in order to honestly connect marketing to “causes,” real work has to be done.

A few examples that come to mind are Warby Parker Buy a Pair, Give a Pair and Starbucks ethically sourced products. These are programs that impact real people’s lives for the better and help solve specific problems, like access to eye care and fair trade in agriculture.

But, sometimes advertisements do get diversity right: the Fenty Beauty ad does a great job of celebrating diversity and having products that back it up. The product launch has been praised for its multi-win strategy of finally representing a full range of skin tones, including a diverse range of models in their marketing, as well as being cruelty-free. That’s what it looks like to walk the walk of a progressive company in America.

First and foremost, companies sell products and services, so it’s not important that companies try to change the world through cinematics in advertising. It’s more important that they change the world through their products, how they are made, and who they employ. Corporations have an opportunity to do real work in the world to make our communities better for everyone.

Something to think about before spending $5 million next year on a Super Bowl ad.

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