The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of every human being to liberty and well-being. —Emma Goldman
Advertising has one primary goal: sell a product. In the crowded world of today’s marketplace, getting a message out there to the right people at the right time requires precision execution of a well-researched strategy. Make a mistake and an entire company can fail. With that kind of pressure, who has time to think about social change? Is social change even something that should worry advertisers in the first place?
Traditionally, advertisers look at an environment to see how their client’s product(s) can/might fit the existing structure. Sometimes, when the product is game-changing, advertisers may look to creating a new environment wherein their client’s product is desirable. What’s most difficult, though, is actually trying to create social change, to alter an environment, in ways that are not necessarily related to a product at all, or where the links are not obvious.
Examples of the latter are difficult to find, but we’re seeing that approach used with increasing frequency and when it’s done well the success for the brand is as astonishing as the social change it creates. The Dove beauty ads that promote being one’s self and alternative views of beauty are probably the best known and most obvious example, but there are others that have popped up this past week that are looking to do more, to make social change that is more concrete; change that actually alters society.
The first highlights a problem that, being a white male, I had never considered: how certain beauty products are shelved. I never have been one to go in for high-end beauty products. Shampoo, deodorant, and soap are all I need and my purchase is more often than not based on price. For people of color, though, such a simple thing as buying a bottle of shampoo can be challenging because the kind of shampoo they need is not shelved with the shampoo, it’s shelved in a special “ethnic” section. WTF? I knew such things had happened in the first half of the 20th century, but I had just assumed that the practice had ended long ago. Not so.
Droga5, the agency for Shea Moisture, decided that the best way to disrupt the severely crowded beauty market was through social change. We don’t need a separate “ethnic” beauty section. Put all the beauty products together and let people decide for themselves which ones they need. The message is timely, appropriate, and very well executed. Take a look.
The second example also comes from a beauty product, but the social change they’re advocating is much more entrenched, taking on a piece of Chinese culture that is literally thousands of years old. For centuries, matchmaking has been a part of Chinese culture. Even the Disney animated rendition of the story of Mulan weaves that tradition into the storyline. The status quo holds that girls need to be married by the time they are 25 or else they bring shame upon their families. Those who are not married by that time are referred to as “leftover girls.”
As odd as this custom seems to those of us in Western society, variations of this approach to marriage is present in nearly every Asian culture. So, for Chinese skin care brand SK-II to take on the subject and suggest that this centuries-old habit no longer fits in modern society means rocking the boat in a very big way. As China has opened itself to global economics and goods made outside its borders, Western ideologies have infiltrated Chinese culture and frequently meets with some resistance. For SK-II to take such a strong stand against such ingrained habits is extremely risky. Yet, the ad they’ve been using takes such a gentle and beautiful approach to social change that it is actually working in their favor. You’ll want to make sure subtitles are on to understand the ad. Take a look:
Then, there’s the matter of Ogilvy & Mather’s Berlin office’s brave attempt to fight a level of social change by creating its own products, a series of books, to fight a rising anti-immigrant wave that is far too reminiscent of a period in history most Germans wish they could erase entirely. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was published this year for the first time since 1945. While much of the symbolism surrounding the Nazi regime is still illegal in Germany, the expiration of the original copyright allowed for the book to be published again just as anti-immigration attitudes are growing in strength both socially and politically.
Ogilvy’s leadership decided to confront this problem head-on by publishing a set of books with the exact same title but very different content. The eleven book series, Mein Kampf Gegen Rechts (My Struggle Against Racism) looks at the effects of xenophobia and injustice through the eyes of 11 very diverse people, including a concentration camp survivor, an Afghan refugee, and a white-haired grandmother who takes on pro-Nazi graffiti with soap and a brush. The books struck a nerve and the initial publication run of 11,000 sold out quickly. Here’s the ad:
Whereas the ads from the two beauty products are careful and gentle in their approach to social change, Ogilvy’s is more like taking a ball bat to the problem. There are few phrases more socially and politically volatile than Mein Kampf. Just using the phrase causes many Germans to cringe. Yet, this is how advertising takes on the problems they see in the world and all three have seen a measure of success in their social goals.
Such an approach raises some questions that still need discussion. What are the ethics in blending social change with selling a product? Do we risk cheapening the change that we’re advocating by attaching it to a specific product or brand? Could brands create problems that don’t actually exist in order to profit from the association? These are not questions with simple answers and moving forward they need to be carefully considered.
At the same time, though, advertisers are in a unique position to use their sizeable budget to bring attention to situations and causes that might otherwise go ignored. The Shae Moisturizer ad is a perfect example; I had no idea that “ethnic” sections still existed and fully support their elimination.
With all that is wrong in our world, change has to come from somewhere and it should be obvious that it’s not going to come from a politician or a government. If brands and advertisers can lead us to think differently about the soda we drink, why can they not use that same power to change how we perceive and treat each other?
Social change can happen through a simple ad. Let ’em roll.