Advertising Creating Positive Social Change

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.

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Brands and Self-Creation

The old brand model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but I believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands reflect culture, not targets or widgets. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough.

Consumers will no longer buy the external brand image we create, but will take it upon themselves to define what a brand really stands for by probing for their own truth. Today we’re seeing that certain issues which could be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. Particularly in such a media-rich, postmodern, global environment, a sense of culture has become increasingly complex. That 35-year-old, American woman, might identify more closely as a post-punk-artist-suburban-engineer. In other words, she isn’t defined so much by her demographic makeup or media habits as she is by the choices she makes in shaping our own worldview and sense of self. And this is where brands taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape of self-creation? Brands become symbols and metaphors for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart. Indeed, meaning has become the most important product a brand creates.

Perhaps the most relevant is that “culture” is a transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols by which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward the world. We’ve all heard it. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. Wonderful, but how do you begin to determine where your brand fits into a cultural matrix? I believe it starts with eight simple questions:

  1. Does it have a higher purpose?
  2. Does it have norms?
  3. Does it have specific values?
  4. Does it have special language?
  5. Does it use specific metaphors and symbols?
  6. Does it have myths, legends, and storytelling?
  7. Does it have rituals?
  8. How broad is its social presence?

Why this particular approach? Because, when people make a purchase, whether it be a mobile phone, a bag of dog food, or a bottle of milk, they are actually using that product or service to add meaning to their lives. The meaning that has been created in the goods and services that everybody buys is not intrinsic to those goods and services. It’s our culture that determines this. If you come to marketing from that point of view, it suggests that the choices we make are actually very important to us, even if those choices seem rather functional. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to craft strategies and messages that reflect these cultural perspectives.

AI, Advertising, and Culture

In an ever-increasingly connected world, artificial intelligence is beginning to find its way into every aspect of our lives. We are “on” 24/7and we rely more and more on our  devices, particularly our mobile devices, to help us make decisions. That rapid increase in computing power has done more than help the user. It has equipped companies with an unprecedented capacity to automate processes that previously required hours, days, and weeks of human effort. AI has allowed companies to target, adjust, and adapt at an unimaginable pace. In the same way that Siri acts as a personal assistant for its users, marketing companies are now tapping into AI to act as a personal assistant in the creation of highly effective marketing campaigns.

Currently, agencies (and their clients) use AI to sort Machine-Learning-AI-in-Finance-11-04-2016-A-1200x1200.jpg
through assets to determine and/or refine the target audience, to gather data about how to best position a brand in various contexts, and to create varied advertisements intended for a wide variety of mediums, including everything from billboards to social media. The final piece is still largely in its infancy, but will no doubt continue to grow and evolve as AI become faster and smarter. Today, the goal of AI in advertising is to optimize campaigns by placing ads in front of the right customer at the right time. As technologies evolve, advertisers will be able to limit their ads on the basis of a huge array of parameters, most of which we’re all familiar with. Targeting an individual will be based on hundreds of parameters and actions, all quantified and measure in the blink of an eye. And creative (and its placement) will adapt in near real-time. In other words, they’ll be able to micro-target at a faster pace than we can imagine.

All of that makes sense, but humans are more than individuals, we are part of broader cultural systems, which means context and cultural cues matter. Yes, each customer is unique and therefore each customer journey is unique. However, there are broader social, symbolic, and cultural forces that guide our behavior depending on the situation at hand. So, the question is, can AI account for those cultural patterns and processes?

Considering the rapid developments in machine and deep learning, these systems will become increasingly capable of teaching themselves to make more precise and effective decisions based on a broader set of inputs. Ultimately this means that for AI to be truly move beyond transactional relevance, it will need to have a more balanced approach, which is to have a robust understanding of people’s aspirations, interactions with each other, and social connections. What are they trying to get done, what are the barriers to that, how do they create a sense of belonging, etc.?

We create culture, interact with it, are affected by it, and can even be destroyed by it. Culture applies its own logic, has a memory, endures after its makers are gone, can be repurposed in supple ways, and can induce action. Because culture can do things we cannot do as individuals, like fostering collective action or making life easier by providing unspoken assumptions on which we can base our lives, AI will need to evolve to do more than react to clicks.

 

 

Fads, Trends, and Being Relevant Over the Long Haul

Staying on top of social and cultural change is difficult. It requires thoughtful observation, reflection, and the ability to connect dots that may go unnoticed in many cases. Similarly, being able to distinguish a trend from a short-lived fit of social interest can make the difference between a meaningful campaign or marketing platform, and a one-hit wonder. Understanding the difference between fads and trends is critical for all organizations. Unfortunately, many decision makers seem to be unaware of their important differences.

Both fads and trends play an important role in a marketing effort’s success, but they aren’t the same thing and they need to be treated differently. If they are not, leaders risk burning out adapting to every fad, and critical trends required for a brand’s long-term survival may be missed. So, what are the key differences?

A fad, in simple terms, is any form of behavior that is intensely followed by a population for a short period of time. It tends to generate a lot of buzz and social capital, but quickly becomes the butt of jokes, abandonment for the newest shiny object, etc. Once the novelty is gone, interest plummets. This isn’t to say that a fad is without value, only that it isn’t sustainable.  Collecting beanie babies was a fad, so were Thomas Kincade paintings, was Pokémon Go. Needless to say, these fads, though short-lived, were hugely successful and organization able to respond to them in their marketing efforts reaped the benefits. Utilizing fads in marketing and advertising can increase top-of-mind awareness, demonstrate the timeliness of your organization, and serve as a gateway for new audiences, all of which are important. The catch is, fads don’t stick around.

Now, compare that with a trend. A trend gets stronger over time and sticks around. It becomes part of the conversation rather than a bit of social punctuation. It has a sense of permanence and place. Trends point to the future as much as they do the present. Trends have identifiable and explainable rises that are driven by audience needs and demonstrated in cultural shifts. They create meaning for people. A trend gains power over time, because it’s not merely part of a moment, it IS the movement. A trend isn’t just relevant to an individual, it is a connector that will become more valuable as other people commit to it.

The interest in renewable energy is a trend. The increased use of virtual reality is a trend. So are evidence-based medicine, the desire for pay equality, and the use of mobile devices. These are things that have grown, redefined how people find meaning in their world, and interact with each other. They solve problems. They represent new ways of life.

So why does it matter? It matters because organizations ignoring the distinction between fads and trends do so at their own risk. If you want to become an iconic brand, then you need to have longevity and provide meaning for people that isn’t fleeting, but rather sustained. Fads are tools good marketers can use for a specific job, trends are the tools he or she uses for a lifetime.