Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Tom Ewing, senior director at marketing research firm System1 Group.
We live, as they say, in interesting times. Electoral shocks and upsets from Trump to Brexit and the rise of protest movements on both the left and right mean that politics is at the forefront of the culture to an extent it hasn't been for several decades. If this year's Super Bowl ads, with 84 Lumber's "The Journey Begins" and Audi's "Daughter" are any indication of whether brands want to join the conversation, it's clear that many want to jump in. Equally unsurprisingly, this proves to be dangerous ground.
We recently tested several socially-conscious ads with consumers, including Pepsi's "Jump In" starring Kendall Jenner (which the company pulled from YouTube after major social media backlash) and Heineken's "Worlds Apart," to understand why some socially-conscious ads work and others don't. We've drawn on these ads to present this set of guidelines for successfully tapping into social movements.
1. Think twice
Politics is difficult, uncomfortable territory for brands, which are often seen as afraid of getting involved — and with good reason. The most effective ads are the most emotional. Political ads are certainly emotive but they may also leave chunks of viewers angry or alienated rather than feeling good and engaged. Since the way to grow brands is to reach people who don't yet buy from you, an ad that turns off large numbers of viewers because they disagree with its point of view is a major risk.
It's not easy to get socially-conscious ads right. At their best, they're emotional ads, which are also an opportunity to grow positive feeling toward a brand by good public relations strategy and high levels of earned media. That best is hard to reach.
2. Have something to say
If alienating potential audiences with advertising carries a risk, isn't it safest to try and keep a message generic to please everyone who sees an ad? Not at all.
The Pepsi "Jump In" commercial didn't resonate because viewers mocked how anonymous and unspecific the protest was that Jenner joined. The ad was the worst of both worlds: By borrowing the aesthetics of politics without the content, it managed to annoy both apolitical and politically-minded viewers and opened itself up to a great deal of mockery.
3. Viral success isn't enough
A lot of the most famous socially-conscious ads earned their fame because they were so widely shared on social media and snagged news coverage through their viral popularity. This makes socially-conscious ads seem like a great way to cut through a crowded media environment. That's true — but it shouldn't be the only aim of advertisers. We'd argue that it's important to have an ad that's authentic.
For instance, Heineken's "Worlds Apart" won a lot of praise on social media and was widely viewed; in our tests, it gained a respectable response from viewers. Definitely a cut above most advertising, but not a spectacular emotional hit. What was the problem?
Past the initial setup of surprising "odd couples" finding common ground over a beer, the ad's negatives were largely found in its execution. The cast seemed inauthentic and the ad went on too long. As one respondent put it, the ad was "nothing new." It was yet another in a string of viral-worthy hits but could've taken it up a notch with slightly improved execution.
4. Make it a story
It's interesting to compare Heineken's ad with another beer ad that took the same theme of bringing opposing sides together. Chinese brand Harbin's "Happiness Without Borders" shows the brand organizing sports events between villagers on both sides of different Chinese borders. The different sides are hostile at first, but the competition lets them deal with their differences and get to know one another better. Inevitably, it ends with sharing a crate of beer.
What does Harbin do better than Heineken? It turns a situation into a single story, with location footage making it seem more authentic and plenty of visual appeal in the sports played. The campaign by BBH China just won an AME Gold Medal award in the "social benefit" category and managed to secure "meaningful share of voice" for Harbin during an Olympics where the brand wasn't a sponsor.
5. Solve the problem
One of the best-received, socially-conscious ads in our database is the TV commercial version of Always' highly-awarded #likeagirl campaign. This 60-second spot — a condensed version of a longer video — had funny moments and adorable children, which often help ads make people feel good. But by focusing on something small — one little phrase — as a stand-in for a wider problem of sexism and low expectations of girls, it was able to create and resolve a problem quickly and effectively. That can mean the difference between hand-wringing and hope, a journey that finds a resolution and one which is left hanging.
6. Timing is everything
In the '60s, former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was asked what blows governments off course. "Events, dear boy, events," he answered. The same is true of advertising. In highly politicized times, ads that have been planned for months can suddenly take on a political tinge when they air.
At the Super Bowl this year, for instance, Anheuser-Busch released an ad, "Born The Hard Way," about its founder's life story as an immigrant coming to the U.S. Its political overtones might've been obvious at any time — but they were particularly glaring in the week after President Trump introduced his attempted "travel ban." Even if you don't think you're making a socially conscious ad, you might inadvertently be. It's worth being prepared for that.
Most of our advice on socially-conscious ads can be summed up by "don’t neglect the basics" — however worthy your cause, make people feel happy, give them something memorable to look at and tell a good story with a positive ending. Successful ads with a political theme are, we'll be honest, rare. But as long as they win awards and drive great press, consumers and brands will be drawn to them.
We hope they'll get it right.