Truly Altruistic Ads Don't Just Raise Money, They Enrich the Culture

Stop do-gooding, start doing good

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In the good ol’ days before pesky digital came along, making content was a problem for the TV networks. Now, with social media and YouTube dominating our attention spans, it’s also a challenge that marketers and agencies must face daily.

And there’s one idea in this new reality that’s already becoming its own cliché: altruism.

I’m not talking about actual giving or good deeds. If you want to work in a soup kitchen or make a donation to charity or pour ice water on yourself, then you unquestionably should. I’m talking about do-gooding and altruism as a marketing technique and as a creative idea.

It’s a blight that particularly plagues digital, partly because digital embraces so many careers and disciplines that don’t involve the perceived cloven-hoofed immorality of (big A) Advertising—and also because the process of digital ideation thrives on user benefit. One way or another, I guarantee that “doing something for charity” will crop up in pretty much every brainstorm session you’ll ever have for digital content.

I’ll always support anything that helps move funds from the offshore accounts of giant corporations into the pockets of the needy. That’s not the issue. The issue is that it’s a creative cop-out—lacking the imagination to generate a powerful emotion, and we fill the void with pity for the unfortunate.

The problem is not with the intention. The problem occurs because for marketers, the giving is in the wrong currency.

Marketing is not investing. We are not a bank. Marketing is the business of generating and spreading thoughts, ideas, images and words. Not bullion. From ads to websites to vines to tweets, we make cultural artifacts. The river that marketing swims in isn’t made of cash; it’s made of culture.

We all want to give back and be altruistic. And we all want to make work that’s famous, has a usage for our audiences and wins awards.

The wonderful thing is, if you treat culture like it is a bank, then you’ll be many steps closer to achieving all those goals.

From VW’s Darth Vader to Oreo’s Facebook posts, great, famous and effective work has a single commonality: They all made investments into our shared cultural bank. They gave us something to talk about, share and enjoy.

It’s not something you can do all the time. By necessity a lot of marketing has to make cultural withdrawals, be it borrowing equity from celebrity or from third-party content.

Your agency’s mission might be to win awards or be famous or serve consumers or maybe just do something that your mom has actually heard of. These are not objectives but rather side effects of what happens when your work makes cultural investments.

So, why not make 2015 the year to up the proportion of your cultural deposits? Simply make it part of your process to ask, “Does this idea enrich or deplete culture?”

To help you on your way, here are four tips that can springboard culturally valuable content ideas.

1. Short-handing and naming
Take a nebulous thing/action/insight that takes a lot of words to express and give it a name. The shorter the better. “Wassup,” “Priceless,” “Boom Chicka Wah Wah” give us the ability to express complex ideas in brief.

2. Is it replicable?
Can your idea be used in common conversation not related to your product? Does it allow for a joke? “I don’t always eat moldy cheese, but when I do…”

3. Novelty
We don’t say, “An interactive film experience that cleverly uses real user content.” Instead we say, “Something like Museum of Me.” We don’t say, “Provocative, sexy and challenger-brand like.” We say, “Like Axe.” If you have a hard time giving your executional technique a name, then you are probably creating something new and culturally valuable.

4. Reflect a truth 
Does your communication hold up a mirror to the world and show it a truth? “Think Different” and “Think Small” share more than a verb. They succinctly articulate truths that before we saw them we didn’t realize we believed.

If you have an idea that distributes some wealth—do it. Unquestionably. But if you have an idea that might get famous, win an award or become colloquial—do that too. Shamelessly. Just because it benefits your business doesn’t mean it won’t benefit us all, and our industry will be able to look back at 2015 and feel proud that it made our culture, and hence our world, a wealthier place.

Steve Hicks (@TwitH1x) is a digital brand consultant and was the creative co-founder of mcgarrybowen’s digital practice.