July 31, 2020 / Thought Leadership

What has advertising learned from social change?

Laura Materna, Experience Design Lead

Who can imagine Don Draper, gazing out the window of his corner office, casually saving the day with a smooth tagline about happiness… in the midst of today’s global pandemic and racial protests? He couldn’t. And that’s a good thing, even if it means our job as marketers is a bit more complicated. The very shape of social discourse is changing at a seemingly unprecedented clip, but the advertising industry has learned from societal shifts before. These shifts have pushed us to grow and even come out the other side a better practice. So how do we react to today’s issues?

We can look to several recent milestones for guidance on how to manage a brand in the current climate.

1. Remember that advertising is a two-way dialogue

Social media’s onset taught us to listen. These platforms reshaped and democratized the media landscape, empowering the customer with a voice just as forceful as the brand’s. As a result, brands had to pay attention to their audience’s needs and up their empathy game in order to engage with consumers meaningfully. Now in the middle of 2020, we find ourselves needing to pay even closer attention to the ebb and flow of this dialogue—not only to understand what the conversation is about, but also to understand when to speak, when to listen, and when to amplify the voices of others. Blackout Tuesday and Juneteenth challenged brands to pause and to listen, two muscles we’ll have to keep exercising.

2. Be vocal

Increased social activism taught us to take a stand. The past few years have seen a flurry of ads taking on a social issue—from Pepsi’s unforgettable protest-themed ad, to heartwarming stories of immigration in Super Bowl spots. And a few that spark controversy. A brand’s stated values won’t always align with 100% of their customer base. But consumers increasingly look to brands as a moral guidepost. That means brands can progress the national conversation with their platform if they have a genuine story to tell or have made a genuine effort toward a social cause.

3. Be transparent and direct

COVID-19 taught us to be truly down-to-earth, to be transparent, and to be direct. We dropped the façade, we scraped together alternate footage, and we focused on providing real, relevant information. Brands had to communicate something tangible: how they were donating, how they were changing their manufacturing to provide PPE or cleaning supplies, or simply how customers could expect to interact with that product or service. Consumers will expect the same transparency and authenticity moving forward, whether that’s about COVID-19, racial injustice, the environment, or any other challenges ahead.

4. Focus on helpful actions

Lastly, the mobilization that followed George Floyd’s death taught us to focus on actions that are helpful, as the national conversation dove into what, exactly, that meant. Helpful didn’t mean performative allyship or simply posting a black square; helpful, in this context, meant taking the time to educate oneself, have difficult conversations, and then push for change. And consumers agreed. As of May 2020, eMarketer found that over two thirds of surveyed adults believe brands have an important role to play to speak out against racial inequality and injustice, and would also be more likely to support brands who take meaningful action around racial inequality rather than making posts and statements.

The required response now, and for meaningful conversations in the future, is to put all of these pieces together: to pay attention to the dialogue and stop and listen when needed, to be vocal about your brand’s values, to speak to the consumer transparently and directly, and to focus on actions that will contribute to the greater good. These lessons take an abundance of empathy and even more patience. Lately though, we’ve started to see some concrete steps forward from what used to be the typical brand response just a few years ago. Brands like Ellevest published their own diversity statistics, goals, and benchmarks; advertisers for brands like Coca-Cola and Unilever took action toward holding tech companies accountable with the #StopHateForProfit boycott; in a sweeter move, Ben & Jerry’s developed a Justice Remix’d flavor, complete with educational resources at a children’s reading level, local partnerships, and a petition on their website. All of this gives me some hope that we’re on the right track when it comes to putting in the work.

Of course we have more work to do—from amplifying voices in our own creative departments to furthering the national conversation where we can. But wherever advertising has evolved, it is largely because consumers have demanded it. So, consumers: Keep demanding. It forces us to do better. And to advertisers: Keep listening with empathy, and keep pushing to do better.