Six Lessons Alfonso Cuarón Wants Marketers to Learn About Supporting Causes

With Roma, the filmmaker showed the power of forging long-term alliances for advocacy

Alfonso Cuarón spoke at this year's Cannes Lions in support of building nonprofit partnerships that can pick up where inspiring content leaves off.
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CANNES, France—No topic was more prevalent at this year’s Cannes Lions than cause marketing, but somewhat ironically, the most successful campaign on that front was not one that came away with any Lions. That’s because it had already received its own honors, specifically in the form of two Golden Globes and three Oscars.

Roma, the 2018 film from visionary director Alfonso Cuarón, was both a heart-wrenchingly powerful narrative and a tremendously effective feat of advocacy, helping propel support for domestic workers who often fall outside the social safety net in almost all countries. On a site created in partnership with the film, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has rallied support from those touched by the film’s story of Cleo, an indigenous maid who lives with an affluent family in Mexico City. Of the 2.5 million domestic workers in the U.S., the site says, 65% have no health insurance and 70% make less than $13 per hour.

The film has already been credited with helping advance sweeping reforms protecting the rights of domestic workers in Mexico, where such legislation had long been stalled by several issues, including cultural taboos around discussing race and class. Similar legislation has been proposed in the United States, where domestic workers have been omitted from key laws like the National Labor Relations Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Cuarón, who based the movie on the life of his own childhood caregiver, now hopes to encourage marketers and filmmakers to take a similar approach of creating content that’s compelling on its own but also ignites a chain reaction of civic engagement—turning impassioned audiences into an army marching toward positive change.

“It’s not that you insert social action into your strategy,” he told Adweek in a conversation after his panel at Cannes. “Social action is the strategy. And that’s a big difference.”

To help marketers understand the difference between authentically supporting a cause versus simply touting two-dimensional gestures of advocacy, Cuarón shared six insights that will help marketers find the balance of commercial success and advancement of a cause:

1. Inspire first

Supporting a cause through your content isn’t about teaching audiences the litany of things wrong with a current system. Cuarón says you must focus on capturing hearts and imaginations by first telling a relatable story.

If you jump to activism too quickly without first inspiring empathy, he says, your project will be a non-starter. Roma, for example, succeeded on both fronts by being a captivating story first and then planting the seeds of advocacy through its portrayal of inequality.

"You don't need to come with a hammer telling people what to do. It's about, first of all, inspiring."
Alfonso Cuarón

“You don’t need to come with a hammer telling people what to do,” Cuarón says. “It’s about, first of all, inspiring.”

Participant Media, the cause-oriented production company that Cuarón worked with on Roma, shares his focus on putting storytelling at the forefront of any project. But both the filmmaker and production company were keenly aware of the importance of having a long-term partnership baked into the process from Day 1.

“The movie had to capture hearts and minds. Once the audience experiences the movie and has that emotional reaction, you can allow them to start thinking about what they want to do,” says David Linde, CEO of Participant Media. “You’re inspiring, you’re empowering people, then you’re connecting them to scale. That’s where the opportunity exists, is to scale up what an organization is doing.”

2. Stay awake to the world around you

From Hollywood executives to senior advertising creatives, it’s easy for anyone in a position of privilege to lose sight of the complex issues facing the wider world. That disconnect, Cuarón says, is often to blame for the inauthentic and ineffective cause marketing efforts perpetuated by brands and content creators.

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