Conventional wisdom in advertising says steer clear of politics. But at the Super Bowl, the Holy Grail of advertising, brands broke the rules.
Shelling out $5 million for a 30-second spot, marketers made poignant statements about gender pay equity and immigration while hawking cars and beer. They used the biggest ad stage to take a stand for a cause.
Judging by the online exposure from the debate about ads and issues, these commercials were a huge success in terms of reach. And while we applaud brands for bringing millions of people into these important conversations, some got flak for false advertising.
For instance, a car company preaching gender equity while only a small fraction of its executive team are women raised questions for some about what they’re actually doing to change the status quo.
“Cause washing is when your walk and your talk don’t match up,” says Marcia Stepanek, professor of digital media at Columbia University. “Solidarity with a cause is a good step, but it has to go further than the latest ad campaign.”
Stepanek points to the importance of “brand democracy,” where companies follow their customers’ lead to get meaningfully involved in social issues.
And the data proves that customers respond.
People form relationships with brands not just because of what they sell but because of what they stand for. A sizeable majority of shoppers—80 per cent—agree companies should address social issues. But the effort has to be authentic. A 2016 Drexel University study found there is a cost for companies whose behavior and brand don’t match up. Unplanned purchases dropped by 15 per cent when companies violated consumer expectations.
Cause washing, while fashionable, may be detrimental in the long run.
“[Customers] don’t understand the power they have” says Danielle Fugere, President and Chief Counsel of As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group that pushes corporations to make positive footprints. More than 84 per cent of consumers say they want to support companies making real progress. If shoppers act on this impulse, they are essentially voting with their dollars for the change they want to see in the world.
In order to win these customers with real brand activism, companies need to build causes into their strategy, not just their marketing.
Clif Bar is lobbying for legislation to forgive student loan debt for budding farmers, one of the major obstacles keeping youth from jobs in agriculture, an aging industry. Patagonia donated their entire $10 million Black Friday sales to conservation projects in 2016. And Airbnb paired an ad for diversity during the Super Bowl with free housing to refugees and those in limbo in the United States after the travel ban.
Companies represent 58 per cent of the largest economic entities in the world, with tremendous resources to grow and scale. When they invest meaningfully in causes, marrying profit and purpose, they make sales and social impact.
For Stepanek, corporate causes hold tremendous promise. But she cautions shoppers: “Awareness is not an outcome, it’s the start of the journey.”