Advertising often gets a bad rap. It promotes over consumption, It promotes negative stereotypes. It makes us dumber. And while there’s some truth in all of this, there’s an argument to be made that advertising, in all its many forms, has also worked for the betterment of humanity. Advertising over the last two decades has created an environment where inclusive portrayals of society have actually benefited our culture, not only a company’s bottom line.
Early in the history of advertising, the message was almost exclusively on the product. Features, benefits, and promises defined the messaging – get whiter teeth, have a greener lawn in half the time, etc. Those messages are still there, but there’s been a shift. As the battle for consumer dollars and attention have intensified, advertising has become more focused on brand. Michael Phelps pushes us to be not just a better athlete but a better human being. Google shows us how inspirational we are through our communal search. Features and benefits don’t even factor in, as the message hones in on what it means to be caught up in this mortal coil.
Companies have shifted from delivering monologues to engaging in conversations and this dynamic has made brands more human in the process. Take Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign. Never referencing feminine hygiene, Always focuses purely on the issue of female empowerment, using the ad to begin “an epic battle” for young girls everywhere by “showing them that doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.” But Always goes beyond what a brand says about you; it’s about identifying shared goals and contributing to a higher purpose – for everyone. You care about empowering girls? Great! You can tweet the “amazing things you do” with #LikeAGirl, and “stand up for girls” confidence at Always.com. Now it’s a conversation, and that’s exactly what Always, and the other companies joining in this form of values-based advertising, are looking for. Very few people care about tampons, but equality and female empowerment? Now that’s topic people get excited about. And this isn’t just about the target audience. It’s about grandmothers, dads, everyone. It help drive a conversation that has resulted in helping break down gender-biases and shifting cultural perceptions.
Cheerios is another great example. The brand didn’t realize what it was getting itself into when it first featured an interracial family to promote the heart-healthy cereal during the summer of 2013. A topic we take largely for granted now sparked a great deal of discussion then. The racist backlash to the ad was so intense that Cheerios disabled the comments section on their YouTube channel. And this offered the public a glimpse into the prejudice mixed race families have to contend with, sparking a national conversation. Cheerios also saw an outpouring of support from consumers applauding the commercial, and a passionate defense against the backlash with people standing up for interracial families everywhere. What began as a simple cereal commercial ended up leading to a national discussion on race relations.
When advertising focuses on empowering people and accepting groups that are less accepted, it doesn’t just reflect culture, it shapes it. When brands paint a different picture of society, they play a role in redefining what is considered mainstream. They play a role is redefining our collective worldview and thus reshape culture. This isn’t to over-inflate the role of advertising in cultural evolution. Advertising will never act as the central agent of change. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important part of the process. We consume massive amounts of advertising every day. When this content promotes an inclusive picture of society and positive cultural change, it can work as an accelerator for social progress. It’s value is not in starting the fire, but in fanning the flames.