At its worst, advertising can be a negative influence--convincing people to spend money they don't have on stuff they don't need--by preying on our insecurities, fears and creating unsustainable desires.
But it can also be a force for good.
It can help spread awareness about services and products that help us, encourage healthy competition among brands, educate us about environmental, political or economic concerns, or unite us behind a common cause.
If advertising serves as a megaphone for our community organizations, why not say something meaningful that serves to propel society forward in a positive way?
In Journalism, there is a relatively new emerging field called "Constructive Journalism" which I learned about from my colleague, Dr. Karen McIntyre. The idea is this: Negative news has lots of negative effects:
Tolerance Antisocial behavior
Evaluations of others Distrust in political leaders
Emotional stability Media criticism
Interest in "serious" news Compassion fatigue
It's not difficult to see parallels in 'negative' advertising, which might be:
Emotional stability Vulnerability, Mistrust
Healthy self-image Insecurity, Narcissism
Rational judgement Materialism & biased media
Constructive Advertising, like Constructive Journalism, isn't about puppies and flowers and saying superficially nice things, and it's not traditional cause marketing either. Most companies support many causes, e.g., Nike's 'Girl Effect' or 'Marathon Kids.' It's about something deeper. What if Advertising stole from Journalism's playbook and created solutions-based messaging? In other words, instead of reinforcing negative stereotypes or courting the destructive forces of the wanton ego, what if Advertising offered real solutions--not just for uncomfortable footwear--but for solving the world's larger problems?
Ellen Palen, a medical doctor and friend, told me recently the the biggest obstacle for young African girls in receiving their education is puberty. When the girls begin to have their monthly periods, they often drop out of school because they don't have access to feminine products. Such a simple obstacle to an alpine achievement. I wonder if Kotex could partner with The Girl Effect and do something to help?
Some brands are already doing this: The Rainforest Alliance partners with brands to fund preservation initiatives. Tom's hands out shoes to third world countries. And now that they've discovered low-income communities need eye-glasses, they are switching gears to respond in kind. Coca-Cola hints at solutions for world peace in the India-Pakistan vending machine experience. Many in the ad industry have termed this 'Enlightened branding.' I prefer Constructive Advertising because it's inherently action oriented and less about waxing philosophically. But whatever it's called, it's definitely a call to arms for the ad industry.
Being an ad industry insider, I know the concern is always about standing out from the crowd. If we all preach positivity, it begins to sound old school, hierarchical, stuffy and boring. Can constructive advertising be funny? Creative? You bet. Just watch Jimmy Fallon or Key & Peele. Using comedy, they advertise a perspective on important social issues designed to get attention.
Further food for thought....
Check out Jay Chiat's manifesto below for advertising written in October 2000.
Illusions Are Forever
Jay Chiat, Forbes ASAP, 10.02.00
I know what you're thinking: That's rich, asking an adman to define truth. Advertising people aren't known either for their wisdom or their morals, so it's hard to see why an adman is the right person for this assignment. Well, it's just common sense--like asking an alcoholic about sobriety, or a sinner about piety. Who is likely to be more obsessively attentive to a subject than the transgressor?
Everyone thinks that advertising is full of lies, but it's not what you think. The facts presented in advertising are almost always accurate, not because advertising people are sticklers but because their ads are very closely regulated. If you make a false claim in a commercial on network television, the FTC will catch it. Someone always blows the whistle.
The real lie in advertising--some would call it the "art" of advertising--is harder to detect. What's false in advertising lies in the presentation of situations, values, beliefs, and cultural norms that form a backdrop for the selling message.
Advertising--including movies, TV, and music videos--presents to us a world that is not our world but rather a collection of images and ideas created for the purpose of selling. These images paint a picture of the ideal family life, the perfect home. What a beautiful woman is, and is not. A prescription for being a good parent and a good citizen.
The power of these messages lies in their unrelenting pervasiveness, the 24-hour-a-day drumbeat that leaves no room for an alternative view. We've become acculturated to the way advertisers and other media-makers look at things, so much so that we have trouble seeing things in our own natural way. Advertising robs us of the most intimate moments in our lives because it substitutes an advertiser's idea of what ought to be--What should a romantic moment be like?
You know the De Beers diamond advertising campaign? A clever strategy, persuading insecure young men that two months' salary is the appropriate sum to pay for an engagement ring. The arbitrary algorithm is preposterous, of course, but imagine the fiance who receives a ring costing only half a month's salary? The advertising-induced insult is grounds for calling off the engagement, I imagine. That's marketing telling the fiance what to feel and what's real.
Unmediated is a great word: It means "without media," without the in-between layer that makes direct experience almost impossible. Media interferes with our capacity to experience naturally, spontaneously, and genuinely, and thereby spoils our capacity for some important kinds of personal "truth." Although media opens our horizons infinitely, it costs us. We have very little direct personal knowledge of anything in the world that is not filtered by media.
Truth seems to be in a particular state of crisis now. When what we watch is patently fictional, like most movies and commercials, it's worrisome enough. But it's absolutely pernicious when it's packaged as reality. Nothing represents a bigger threat to truth than reality-based television, in both its lowbrow and highbrow versions--from Survivor to A&E's Biography. The lies are sometimes intentional, sometimes errors, often innocent, but in all cases they are the "truth" of a media-maker who claims to be representing reality.
The Internet is also a culprit, obscuring the author, the figure behind the curtain, even more completely. Chat rooms, which sponsor intimate conversation, also allow the participants to misrepresent themselves in every way possible. The creation of authoritative-looking Web sites is within the grasp of any reasonably talented 12-year-old, creating the appearance of professionalism and expertise where no expert is present. And any mischief maker can write a totally plausible-looking, totally fake stock analyst's report and post it on the Internet. When the traditional signals of authority are so misleading, how can we know what's for real?
But I believe technology, for all its weaknesses, will be our savior. The Internet is our only hope for true democratization, a truly populist publishing form, a mass communication tool completely accessible to individuals. The Internet puts CNN on the same plane with the freelance journalist and the lady down the street with a conspiracy theory, allowing cultural and ideological pluralism that never previously existed.
This is good for the cause of truth, because it underscores what is otherwise often forgotten--truth's instability. Truth is not absolute: It is presented, represented, and re-presented by the individuals who have the floor, whether they're powerful or powerless. The more we hear from powerless ones, the less we are in the grasp of powerful ones--and the less we believe that "truth" is inviolable, given, and closed to interpretation. We also come closer to seeking our own truth.
That's the choice we're given every day. We can accept the very compelling, very seductive version of "truth" offered to us daily by media-makers, or we can tune out its influence for a shot at finding our own individual, confusing, messy version of it. After all, isn't personal truth the ultimate truth?
Advertising guru Jay Chiat founded the Chiat Day Advertising Agency in 1968 and revolutionized the industry by being at the vanguard of the virtual office and digital content distribution. He is chairman of ScreamingMedia, based in New York City.
The Girl Effect is an organization in partnership with Nike which believes that educating girls is the key to ending poverty. "When a girl is better educated, she has access to sexual and reproductive healthcare information and services, has access and control of economic assets, is safe from violence and exploitation, and has the capabilities and confidence to make positive choices, and can break the cycle of poverty."
TedEx established Ted Ads Worth Spreading in 2010. It was created to inspire the industry in diverse areas of interest: Talk, Social Good, Cultural Compass, Creative Wonder, Brand Bravery and Education.
In an effort to reward ads that effect positive change, the Effies created a new award category in 2015: The Positive Change Effie.
Intermarche, France's largest supermarket chain, partnered with Marcel to reduce waste in the produce department. This ad won 2015's Gold Effie for Positive Change.
Chipotle's "The Scarecrow" also won a gold and encouraged people to continue the conversation about where our food comes from.
One of my personal favorites, all the way back from 1995: Nike's "If You Let Me Play" from Weiden-Kennedy Portland still gives me goosebumps.
American Greetings' "The World's Toughest Job" by Mullen created for Mother's Day is a close #2.