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Ayoung man learning to shave from his father. Parents playing with their kids. A family seated around the dinner table. These are some of the moments that have been used in advertising to communicate values—ads featuring families help build brands as family brands.

In 2019, Gillette gave one of these archetypal moments a new context with “First Shave” from Grey Canada. The short film shows Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, a trans artist and activist, shaving for the first time while his father steadily encourages him. Not only does it act as the rite of passage of a father teaching his son something of maleness, but it also represents a visible, deeply humanizing moment for trans people at a time when they are marginalized and widely misunderstood.

“This moment overwhelmed me during filming and again today seeing the ad since it’s been launched,” wrote Brown on his Facebook post in which he shared the ad. “I am confident that this ad will encourage many of my trans siblings and fill them with the knowledge that our existence can be filled with the love and support we deserve.”

Still from “First Shave,” a short film for Gillette by Grey Canada, directed by Angie Bird.

Brown’s response precisely conveys the feeling that more and more agencies have been courting for brands. Through advertising that illuminates today’s issues, they hope to throw their marketing weight behind a “purpose.” “Brands don’t exist in a void. They exist in the world along with the rest of us. If they want to effectively infiltrate culture, they must find their own voice and take a stance when necessary,” says Emiliano González De Pietri, executive creative director at Grey Europe, who worked on the “First Shave” ad for Gillette.

Yet, just as with any trend, there have been stumbles along the way—and some downright painful falls. While it is easy enough for brands and ad agencies alike to find social and environmental causes to craft a message around, the ad, if handled poorly, can end up hurting instead of helping. Even with the best of intentions, ads that misfire appear unsupportive or even exploitative of the issues they intend to tackle.

If [brands] want to effectively infiltrate culture, they must find their own voice and take a stance when necessary.”
—Emiliano González de Pietri

I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone of the time Kendall Jenner solved institutional racism and police brutality towards people of color with a can of Pepsi. The in-house ad, widely blasted for being tone-deaf and co-opting Black Lives Matter, was quickly pulled by the company. Then there’s betting company Paddy Power’s double-decker bus, created by Madrid-based ad agency Officer & Gentleman, at 2018’s Brighton Pride in the United Kingdom. This, I feel, is especially pertinent given the forthcoming open season on rainbow-colored Pride ads. In highlighting the lack of openly gay players in the Premier League, the stunt also appeared to critics as pressuring closeted footballers to come out without being considerate of why they remain in the closet. As Arwa Mahdawi wrote in her opinion piece for the Guardian, “[The] stunt, although seemingly well-intentioned, laid bare an embarrassing eagerness among corporations to profit from social causes without putting in the time and resources to address the issues in meaningful ways.”

So, how can purpose-led advertising better engage with woke folks?

“Woke culture is a postinternet culture,” says Sinead Toolis, freelance marketer at social media consultancy LittleByrd. “It expects media that will be discussed and critiqued and torn apart to understand. [Wokeness in advertising] isn’t just an ad put out into the void; it’s a conversation with your consumers that doesn’t end when your ad clicks off, but continues every time they use that product. Companies that take the time to understand their consumers and show that they’re involved in making their communities a better place—those will massively outperform companies that fake wokeness for clicks.”

For starters, ad campaigns have to respectfully approach the conversations they want to join. “Creative and marketers must take [respect] seriously,” says Lewis Williams, executive vice president, chief creative officer at Burrell Communications Group. “They should do what’s best to try and make the world better for the underserved, the planet and any social issues by heightening awareness or changing the conversation for the better. Not just to win awards or a carefully orchestrated public relations stunt. They should be in it for the long haul. Long after the press clippings have moved on.”

A memorable example of advertising that generated much publicity is Gillette’s 2019 “We Believe” spot by Grey New York, which took on the issue of toxic masculinity. While some denounced the ad as being unfair to men, others praised it for challenging the “boys will be boys” mentality. And in 2018, one of the most controversial campaigns of recent years began with a tweet by Colin Kaepernick, who posted a cropped photo of his face with a phrase starkly set over it: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The campaign, by Wieden+Kennedy Portland, included billboards and a spot celebrating athletes who have overcome significant challenges by “dreaming crazy.” Nike sales ultimately grew “31 percent from Sunday through Tuesday over Labor Day [that] year, besting 2017’s comparative 17 percent increase,” according to Edison Trends. “[The Kaepernick ad] was successful because it reflected the attitude of the brand while taking on a very sensitive national issue. Head on,” Williams says.

Outdoor poster for Nike by Wieden+Kennedy,
portrait by Martin Schoeller.

Of course, there was criticism against Nike, most famously from president Donald Trump, as well as from critics who, deeming the campaign “unpatriotic,” shared videos of themselves burning their Nike gear in protest. But that’s something brands should expect when taking a stand on pressing issues. “When a brand decides to enter a social conversation, there is likely to be a backlash,” says Jim Joseph, global president at marketing communications agency Burson Cohn & Wolfe and author of The Conscious Marketer: Inspiring a Deeper and More Conscious Brand Experience. “It’s not a matter of if, but when, how strong and how long. Part of taking a stand is understanding all sides of an issue so that a brand can comment on it in totality. Planning for all kinds of commentary and how to respond to it is the key to success in these endeavors. Having a response plan is vital.”

“Brands should deal with backlash and engage outraged viewers when they honestly feel they’ve dropped the ball,” says De Pietri. “On the other hand—if the cases of Nike’s Kaepernick ad and Gillette’s We Believe campaign have taught us something—when the backlash is a consequence of the brand taking a clear and well-thought-out stance, they should weather the storm and never cave.”

It’s important to remember that the work adds to an ongoing discussion. One of the reasons why Nike’s Kaepernick campaign may have been so well received is because of how it starred Kaepernick, an activist who protested police brutality and racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. “Just because a brand has deep pockets doesn’t mean they get to elbow in front of the people and the organizations that have been ghting the good fight on a daily basis,” says Shanteka Sigers, creative director at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. “Enter these spaces humbly, ready to learn, listen and share. Show up like a savior, and you and your product might get dragged on social and shown the door.”

Enter these spaces humbly, ready to learn, listen and share. Show up like a savior, and you and your product might get dragged on social and shown the door.” —Shanteka Sigers

In 2019, ahead of NYC Pride, the largest Pride event in the world, Google and Stink Studios worked with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center to create a digital monument to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots by amplifying the voices of those who experienced it. Shawn Kobetz, NYC Pride’s partnerships manager, says, “The most successful engagements were the most authentically thought-driven ones. I say this to people all the time: It is one thing to show up. It is another thing to make a statement. The groups who truly show effort for both their employees and the community stand out. I honestly do not think we had a single ineffective group at Pride [in 2019]. Did some do more than others? Sure, but I am proud to say that every single partner had a positive impact.”

“Brands have a responsibility to use their power in a positive way,” Kobetz continues. “They have grown a following, both in business and on social media. People look to them, and if done correctly, that platform can make a huge impact through its advertising. It is also a very sensitive relationship because if you do have a platform, it doesn’t always mean you should use it. You should only use that platform if you are educated and authentic.”

Paddy Power, with ad agencies Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Lucky Generals, partnered with LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall in 2013 to launch its Rainbow Laces campaign to “try to drive a genuine change in attitudes to homosexuality in football.” In rethinking its tagline “The Best A Man Can Get” in the #MeToo era, Gillette pledged to distribute “$1 million per year for the next three years to nonprofit organizations executing the most interesting and impactful programs designed to help men of all ages achieve their personal best.” And for years, Nike has been contributing to enrichment programs for the underserved, especially through its N7 program, which helps fund athletic activities for Native American and Aboriginal youth.

Perhaps brands and agencies should view purpose-led advertising as an opportunity to kindle a lasting relationship with the activists and organizations that actually drive the causes brands claim to care about. After all, who’s better to talk about these issues than the people who have been doing so all along. ca

Michael Coyne is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Having previously worked for Communication Arts, he now plans on attending graduate school for a master’s degree in creative writing

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