Advertisements can serve as catalysts for social change

Gillette’s recent short film, “The Best a Man Can Be” rightly criticizes toxic masculinity and its implications for future generations. The film is the most recent addition to a slew of controversial brand advertisements speaking on sociopolitical issues. From Nike’s profoundly moving Kaepernick ad to Pepsi’s disastrous police brutality ad, debates rage on about how ethical it is for a company to leverage social issues for profit. Considering the massive reach of big companies like Gillette and Nike, I believe that the messages portrayed in these social ads, if presented well, can serve as a catalyst for social change.

According to Nielsen, the average American sees as many as 5,000 ads per day. These advertisements are an exaggerated facsimile of our own reality, and by their very nature designed to influence how we view the world. Whether they’re trying to convince us to buy a Snuggie or attempting to speak on racism, ads have immensely powerful social influence. When advertising is done poorly, according to the American Psychological Association, it can have far-reaching negative effects: Tobacco and alcohol ads can contribute to underage drinking and smoking. And women may experience depressive symptoms when exposed to the ultra-thin, unrealistic body ideal often portrayed by models in ads. Unsurprisingly, there are very real consequences from being exposed to certain types of advertising.

Graphic by Ethan Gerling

However, the influence of advertising also can move in the opposite direction. Properly done advertisements historically have started important conversations. In 2013, for example, Cheerios released a seemingly innocent ad with one integral element: it featured an interracial family. The resulting backlash sparked conversations about race and what currently constituted the “traditional” American family. However, in the aftermath of the ad’s release, it “inspired an online community of interracial families dedicated to publicly reflecting the changing face of the American family,” according to Medium. Furthermore, the Cheerios ad was largely responsible for inspiring numerous other brands, such as Chevrolet and Coca Cola, to weigh in on the new American family, from such names as Chevrolet and Coca Cola. Arguably, the Cheerios commercial sparked an important conversation about race in America that wasn’t taking place on such a large scale before. The ad established a stage for open debate over a crucial topic.

Taking risks and speaking out on social issues reaps its own share of benefits for businesses, according to Forbes. Sprout Social, a provider of social media management for businesses, surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. consumers about how or if they want to see brand names speaking up on social issues. Two-thirds of those surveyed indicated that they wanted brands to be more involved with social and political issues. In addition, businesses that address social issues properly have historically done well in the aftermath. After the Cheerios commercial, brand exposure went up by 77 percent, and the company’s CEO highlighted a boost in sales from new advertising, according to Medium. More recently, Nike’s online sales increased by 31 percent following the Kaepernick ad.

In essence, speaking up on social issues has the capacity to benefit both the brands and the people these social issues affect. When brands address big sociopolitical topics, they often give a loud voice to those who often don’t get a say in popular media. In the past, brands have used advertisements to support the fight for gay marriage, as well as address hot topics like toxic masculinity and racism. Brands have the capacity to spread awareness regarding issues they feel strongly about, and not acknowledging that kind of power is dangerous.

More than twenty years ago, Ikea aired the first advertisement to explicitly feature a gay couple. Despite initial backlash, Ikea kept the ad on the air, inspiring more ads focused on the LGBTQ demographic and eventually leading other companies openly to advocate for the gay community. While some may  loathe to say it, brands hold immense power as vehicles for social action, far more powerful than ordinary individuals on their own. Therefore, if a brand wants to speak up on social issues, they must understand their potential for far-reaching change and overall influence. As Starbucks founder Howard Schultz puts it, “Given the state of affairs, being indifferent is as evil as contributing to the vitriol, hate and division going on in the country.”