Advertising is a visible face of business and as such, often takes a fair amount of heat– sometimes deservedly, sometimes not. We are at the heart of every argument against consumerism, questionable corporate practices, etc. And there is some truth to the criticisms that arise. But it’s worth noting that as an industry, we have the capacity to change the world in very meaningful ways and have, in fact, done so on more than one occasion. In fact, we are doing it more and more often with remarkable success.
There’s nothing necessarily new in this. The shift began in the 1960s in the form of a largely forgotten ad man by the name of Howard Gossage. His agency was in San Francisco. He worked for commercial clients but soon got bored and turned his attention to social issues and causes.
Agencies have always done work for charities and nonprofit groups, but this was the first time anyone had used the power of advertising for social and environmental good. He prevented the power companies from flooding the Grand Canyon, casually named a young environmental group “Friends of the Earth” and planned the Summer of Love from his agency. And the result was to redefine much of how we in the industry view our mission.
Recently, a story ran on 60 Minutes about the role advertising had in bringing a long and brutal conflict to an end. For decades, the Colombian government was fighting the guerrilla organization known as FARC. It was an unending cycle of violence and every strategy had ultimately come up short. As a last resort, the government went to advertising executive Jose Miguel Sokoloff. The idea was to use advertising, not bullets, to convince the FARC to demilitarize. The campaign and strategy was to focus on reconciliation and bringing FARC members back home. The result was that the majority of the FARC demilitarized, peace talks were arranged, and Colombia began to see the social and economic benefits.
In another outstanding campaign, TBWA launched an outdoor campaign in Finland for the Helsinki Police over the Christmas holidays that had a hyper-local, reactive element to it. When a domestic violence call into 911 (112 in Helsinki), the agency immediately put up anti-violence PSA posters on the 15 outdoor placements nearest to the home that made the call. The creative itself is also innovative. It shows a kitchen scene, which during the daytime looks normal, but after dark, a background lights switches on to reveal the signs of domestic violence.
Closer to home, Luckie & Co. worked with its partners to help make bring civil rights experience to life, particularly for younger generations. It’s hard to find a place that holds the civil rights struggle closer to its heart than Alabama. The state has made it a mission to turn a complicated, often painful history into a learning experience that does more than present the facts – it means to bring the story to life in an interactive, deeply resonant way. Luckie worked across multiple channels to tell a very human story that has drawn accolades and visitors from around the world.
The question is: how do we ensure we do this sort of thing more often? How do we become positive agents of change regularly rather than sporadically? I think the answer boils down to several key principles. Be strategic, be bold, and be determined. First, it’s not enough to get attention, you have to have a plan that will work over time, across multiple channels. You have to know every nuance of story being told and the audience that will receive it. Without a strategic plan, tactics will have no grounding and won’t produce meaningful change. Second, being bold means being will to disrupt, sometimes shock, and always have a clear point of view. This can be difficult with some clients because their need is to mitigate risk. Being bold is frightening. But without taking a strong stand, the message is easily lost in the sea of messaging we experience every day. Furthermore, change means confronting difficult issues, something people readily shy away from if given the chance. Unless your campaign, platform, etc. makes people stop and reflect, it simply won’t work. Finally, being determined means not wavering in the face of opposition, whether internal or external. That’s easier said than done in many case, but in order for your plan to have real impact, it will have to be “sold” again and again. Being strategic and being bold is threatening, which means clients will often shoot for the lowest common denominator. And to be fair, it’s a normal reaction. So, be prepared to defend your position again and again until you start to see results. Until you see the world change.