Advertising and Social Messages: the Best a Brand Can Get?

In recent months, a number of advertising campaigns spreading moral messages have made headlines and created social media storms for the right, or wrong, reasons. In some cases, the marketing efforts were costly and alienated segments of their intended target audience. Before we dive into them, let’s have a quick recap on corporations, brands and advertising.

  • Corporations provide us with goods and services through extremely complex and well-thought processes that make our 21st-century lifestyles possible
  • Corporations provide jobs which make our current lifestyles possible
  • Corporations use Advertising to promote goods and services to their target audience
  • Advertising campaigns are measured by their impact on sales, traffic and brand awareness
  • Some corporations have been extremely successful with their branding efforts by achieving a cult-like user base eg: Apple, BMW, Harley Davidson, etc
  • I repeat, ad campaigns are measured by their impact on SALES, TRAFFIC and BRAND AWARENESS

As the critically acclaimed TV show Mad Men portrayed, morally intuitive advertising was a common tactic in the 60s and 70s, and this was because viewers were generally speaking: ‘marketing illiterate’. However, the current generation is very different. We have grown up surrounded by ads, information has been (mostly) democratised and therefore we are better prepared to face a constant stream of ads and take them for what they are worth. Hence, to launch an advertising campaign in the 21st Century focusing on human morals and not ‘a product’, marketing teams need to be extremely cautious in order to strike the right chord with their target audience. Let’s look at some examples that have opened the debate in the marketing community and with the wider audiences:

Lynx (Axe) Deodorant – Unilever – ‘Gender Equality’ 👍

Their 2015 campaign from their male grooming brand Lynx, known as Axe outside the UK, was relaunched by the second time in its history, ditching the ‘Lynx effect’ shtick to appeal to the more sensitive man. This campaign has evolved till today based on the themes of gender equality and gender fluidity and it has proved to be a success.

This boy can? Lynx’s repositioning in a fourth-wave feminist world Campaign, January 2016

Ad – Link

Pepsi – ‘Black Lives Matter’ 👎

Pepsi had to apologise for their advertising fiasco that included imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement plus Kendall Jenner…

Pepsi pulls ad accused of trivializing Black Lives Matter – The New York Times, April 2017

Ad – Link

Nike – ‘Racism’ 👍

As The Guardian put it: ‘From the Tiger Woods ‘Did you learn anything?’ advert to denials about the benefits of anti-racism campaigns, Nike are easy to see through. But they do back winners’ Success

Nike’s commercial cynicism is clear but Colin Kaepernick ad is a sign – The Guardian, September 2018

Ad – Link

Gillette – ‘Toxic Masculinity’ 👎

Gillette’s campaign in response to #MeToo that challenges men to do better, less macho and to stop excusing bad behaviour by challenging the old narrative of ‘boys will be boys’. Failed.

Mark Ritson: Gillette’s new ad will trash its sales and be the year’s worst marketing move – Marketing Week, January 2019

Ad – Link

In my own opinion, there is a common denominator amongst the successful campaigns above, in one word:


Nike used the authenticity of Kaepernick, the pathos in his voice and the positivity of his message to inspire customers with an aspirational message that attracted them and then propelled them to purchase. On the contrary, the Gillette and Pepsi ads feel like a tedious, politically correct video – the kind of film we sometimes must watch at school or the workplace about prejudice and common sense.

Given that there is a high failure ratio, brands with large marketing budgets need to be extra careful before embarking in such dangerous paths.

How didn’t Gillette learn from the successful Unilever’s Lynx Ad campaign on gender equality? Why focus on toxic masculinity rather than celebrate progress? It goes beyond my comprehension.

My guidelines, if I may, are:

  • Never underestimate your (educated) audience
  • Reduce brandsplainning to zero

and… you will make your brand messaging great again! ☺️

Further Reading