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On Earth Day in 1971, a television commercial changed the world. In it, a Native American man shed a tear, devastated at the ravages of pollution occurring around him. That visual seared itself into the consciousness of society.

Created by Marsteller Inc. in collaboration with the Ad Council and the Keep America Beautiful campaign, that “crying Indian” commercial not only launched an environmental movement and reduced littering, but also illustrated the power of a creative marketing idea to raise awareness and action for a cause.

Almost a half-century later, we’re in a golden age of cause-related advertising. And it’s not just charities and nonprofit organizations reaping the benefits, but companies too. From Dove’s Real Beauty campaign to Secret’s Mean Stinks initiative, corporations have been adopting causes as part of their marketing communications, raising awareness for important issues. But it has also led to a concern: Are some brands and agencies taking advantage of causes for the wrong reasons? I chatted with Paul Venables, founder and chairman of Venables Bell & Partners, and Susan Credle, global chief creative officer at FCB Global, to share thoughts.

“There’s pressure when a brand jumps into a cause, but also huge benefits,” says Venables. He recognizes that for many companies in the age of parity products, values are one of the last remaining ways to differentiate themselves. “If they can market through their values, they can appeal to people, create a deeper affinity and cut through the clutter,” he continues.

Danger arises in possibly appearing inauthentic. The cause must be consistent with the brand’s personality, and a singular feel-good campaign won’t be enough to convince people that a brand is truly committed to a cause. If a company has no credibility jumping into a particular issue, distrust will result. “A brand needs to establish who it is, who it believes in, the kind of consumers that are right for it,” Venables adds. “That’s not to say it can’t adopt an entirely new cause, but it has to make sense based on past behavior and values it has expressed.”

Are agencies and brands occasionally guilty of caring more about the recognition they’ll receive from a cause campaign than if the work actually makes an impact?”

“Brands need to be committed,” says Credle. “If you’re going to take on a cause, it can’t be just in the moment jumping on something. You have to make a commitment to following it through and providing action.”

“You win people over through a history of actions and behaviors,” says Venables.

“If brands have principles established and their values set—even if the public gets angry with them—they can stand proud with their decision,” says Credle.

We can all agree that a company attempting to be a better corporate citizen is a no-brainer good thing. But an issue often discussed is whether there are too many agencies motivated to create feel-good campaigns for selfish reasons, to win awards, for example. Are agencies and brands occasionally guilty of caring more about the recognition they’ll receive from a cause campaign than if the work actually makes an impact?

Several award show organizations are creating new categories for feel-good ads and impact-oriented campaigns. The Webby Awards have added a Webby for Good category. The Cannes Lions now feature a Grand Prix for Good recognition. D&AD recently created D&AD Impact to award campaigns that can demonstrate having made a positive difference in the world.

In a piece for Campaign in January 2016, DDB Worldwide chief creative officer Amir Kassaei delivered a polemic against the obsessed-with-awards-shows culture of the business. In the article, he states, “If we are coming up with social ideas that pretend to solve the world’s biggest problems or help disenfranchised people, but, in fact, are only being done to win an award, we are cynical and perhaps even criminal.”

Knowing someone’s true motivation for developing a feel-good campaign is impossible, and until Google invents lie detector glasses, we’re only able to guess. Venables, who serves on the jury for D&AD Impact, judges entries through a personal filter: “Did this thing do what it was set out to do or was it just creative jollies for some award hardware?” He stresses that you must strengthen your BS detector. “If only six people saw something, it didn’t do anything,” he warns.

But does it even matter if their motivations are of a selfish origin? Another viewpoint is that self-centered interests can be given a pass as long as the campaign created a true impact. As Credle puts it, “If you’re doing good, I don’t care what motivated you.”

Venables believes that if talented creatives are impelled to do more important work because of an award, then it’s still a good thing. “If it helps fuel really creative brains to attack a serious issue, so be it,” he adds. “Let’s create all the categories they need.”

Knowing someone’s true motivation for developing a feel-good campaign is impossible, and until Google invents lie detector glasses, we’re only able to guess.”

A recent cause-related campaign that received an avalanche of attention was the Fearless Girl statue: a bronze sculpture of a young girl standing bravely in front of Wall Street’s Charging Bull. Created by McCann New York, Fearless Girl was placed there to celebrate International Women’s Day, and it became an instant global sensation.

But with all the praise also came criticism. Some have derided the statue as “fake corporate feminism,” suggesting that it’s simply a publicity stunt. In writing for the Atlantic in April 2017, Bourree Lam states that many view Fearless Girl as a “successful marketing coup masquerading as a message of female empowerment.”

Despite the criticism, Venables and Credle are very much in favor of Fearless Girl. “It was cool and well done,” says Venables. “Yes, it was done for a brand, but the conversation it created and issues it generated were all good, healthy productive stuff that’s going to help society move forward.”

Credle adds the opinion that edgy, provocative work will always have both lovers and haters. She only wishes the statue’s purpose had been a little clearer. “I wasn’t hit over the head that the girl represented the SHE fund,” the State Street Global Advisors’ Gender Diversity Index,
a fund that invests in companies committed to gender diversity.

On Fearless Girl’s impact, however, Credle believes it’s still up to McCann and State Street Global Advisors to continue to advance the cause. “If they just win all these awards, that feels shallow,” she says. “But if they feel like they’re the parent of it, it’ll be more meaningful every year—and make it more valuable.”

The moment that single tear appeared on the face of the “crying Indian,” marketing creativity reached for a higher purpose. Should all creatives feel an obligation to use their abilities to make the world better?

Picture me standing on a chair as I emphatically answer: “Absolutely.”

Venables shares his agency’s ethos: “We feel that we have a sense of purpose and meaning to use our talents for good.” He’s seen a proliferation of student portfolios that feature side projects for causes and issues. According to a study published by the World Economic Forum, millennials define themselves most often as global citizens who feel a responsibility to make the world better.

“Find your intrinsic motivation,” Venables stresses. “Do it because it made you excited, got your heart going and brain racing. Start there, and good things will happen.”

“I hope we always continue to think about giving back with the skills we’re mastering,” Credle says. She recognizes the immense power that brands and agencies possess to create cause-related campaigns but also believes we shouldn’t disparage the work that’s not related to a cause. A message creatively delivered that’s purely getting the word out about a product or business deserves recognition as well.

“There’s value in what we do beyond just the impactful stuff,” she says. “We need to recognize how much good advertising does in general for this world. What we do matters—it can matter in big, important ways, and it can matter in small, interesting ways too.” ca

Dave Kuhl is a Cannes Lions–winning senior creative and writer who has worked at top agencies across the country. Currently, he freelances remotely with brands and agencies on projects across all sizes and mediums.


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