Should brands take a stance on social issues in their ad campaigns?

By March 30, 2015Uncategorized

Up until recently there had been an unspoken agreement between consumers and their favourite brands when it came to social and political issues. Brands took on the guise of a neutral and all-loving corporate entity, being careful not to share too many opinions; consumers were careful enough not to ask too many questions – we gave them our money, they gave us a killer pair of heels or a fancy new hat and we all lived together in perfect (and ignorant) harmony.

But a new generation of ethical consumers has appeared out of the woodwork, pushing this agreement to the side and choosing to only be associated with brands that reflect their own morals and beliefs.

And, after a few brave brands came out of the corporate closet and shared their views on same-sex marriage, or the gender pay gap, or Brexit, a horde of businesses have been quick to follow suit.

Nowadays, it seems as though every brand has a sudden social conscience – with entities from different industries coming to advertising agencies with a desire to share their very own message of empowerment to their customers (and maybe win an award or two along the way).

But, the thing with this trend is that it’s not just a trend.

Remember a few years back when everyone was perfectly content eating deep-fried chips, and chicken wings, and Mars bars, and, well, anything that was deep-fried was considered fair game – then out of nowhere you couldn’t go to a cafe or restaurant without seeing the words “organic,” “natural” or “raw” stamped somewhere on the menu. This new wave of healthy eating is in essence a trend – a way for the food and hospitality industry to make more money, but it’s worth noting that this trend started out as a direct result of an overly saturated market (double pun!). There were very few places selling food that wasn’t saturated in fat.

And this same very rule applies to the increased demand for more diversity in advertising, because there was a lack of diversity beforehand – in the same way there was a lack of diversity in our workplaces, top universities, and boardrooms. This is a problem that is impacting society as a whole – where we have all spotted a problem and are fighting for a solution.

But before your brand jumps on the LGBT bandwagon, it is worth noting that honesty and transparency are the key principals you need to bear in mind. The messages you broadcast in your ad campaigns need to align with your brand’s core values and aspirations. To put it simply, you need to practice what you preach!

Changing with the times: a whole new era of advertising

Now that we are living in an era where promoting diversity in advertising is on trend – brands that choose to play it safe may be doing themselves an injustice. While your ads may not be racist, sexist, or homophobic, and your cast is probably a little more diverse than the tall, skinny, blond athletes that made up team Germany at the 1936 Summer Olympics, brands that choose to play it safe are taking one serious risk – irrelevance.

Coca-Cola’s latest campaign features a brother and sister who are both eye-goggling the pool boy. They desperately race each other outside to offer him a bottle of Coke, only to find their mother had beaten them to it.

The ad is funny, diverse, and it reflects the brand’s values, all while placing Coca-Cola at the centre of the madness.

“We wanted to position an ice-cold Coca-Cola as the ultimate object of desire, but also tell an emotional, human story – pretty much following the spirit of the campaign to integrate product benefits with emotional brand values,” says Coca-Cola’s Vice President of Global Creative, Rodolfo Echeverria.

Another recent example of a great campaign is Mars Chocolate UK’s new ads for Malteasers’ which features three ads inspired by real-life stories from disabled people. Provocative, honest and highly humorous, the campaign was met with widespread approval for breaking down taboos surrounding people with disabilities.

In fact, two of our most recent ad campaigns feature a diverse cast – the TVC we created for Frylight features a range of different families in the kitchen using the brand’s cooking spray, while our digital campaign for Twinings has a healthy dose of characters from all different generations and backgrounds.

But perhaps the most surprising advertising campaign we have seen in recent years is Lynx’s “Find your magic” series. Up until recently, the Unilever-owned brand has been notorious for its sex-fuelled ad campaigns that unabashedly objectify women (to say the least), one of which featured hundreds of bikini-clad women flocking to a man spraying himself with Lynx on the beach; another entailed angels falling from the sky and giving up their spot in heaven to be with a man wearing Lynx body spray.

While it is no surprise that these ads have caused some controversy over the years, more importantly, the campaigns have been hugely successful at resonating with its target audience – young men, resulting in one can of Lynx in every four homes in the UK.

However, after Unilever made a companywide vow to put an end to sexist stereotyping in early 2016, Lynx launched a more politically correct and male-centric ad campaign focused on how men can find their own forte or “magic” by being themselves. The ad was careful to tick all the different diversity boxes, featuring a man dancing in a pair of heels, a disabled groom dancing with his bride on their wedding day and a gay male couple flirting in a record store. It was the perfect diversity cocktail.

This ad campaign is far less likely to offend – but by desexualising its ads, Lynx are facing a serious risk of staying relevant to its target audience as they are taking away the core reason why men are buying its products (in a nutshell, the brand’s core message has always been Lynx will get you more sex).

While it would be unfair to say that this campaign was unsuccessful, sales figures of Lynx men’s deodorant have fallen by 3.3% at the end of 2016 – hinting that Lynx may have lost some of its sex appeal.

What are the essential characteristics of what you sell? Do these characteristics separate your product from the competition? Who are you trying to sell it to?The message to take home here is that brands need to stay true to the core aspects of its products or services.

Brands take a step into the political boxing ring

You may not be allowed to discuss politics with friends and family, but now it seems commonplace for brands to have an opinion on political issues.

For some brands, having a political voice is easy – its company values and morals, staff culture, and target audiences all align with a political stance.

For instance, Diesel’s “Make love not walls” campaign is an obvious jab at the Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexico/US border.

Besides the clear political theme, the cast of the ad campaign is exceptionally diverse, featuring Ukranian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, artist Stefan Meier, transsexual model Laith de la Cruz, androgynous gay artist Karis Wilde, and Olympic silver medallist Danell Leyva, among others.

“We wanted to spread a positive message and show that a brighter and exciting tomorrow is possible,” Diesel’s Artistic Director, Nicola Formichetti, told AdFreak.

This message fits in with the brand’s overall strategy – Diesel has a long-standing history advocating for gay rights and diversity, but some newer companies are also choosing to advocate for certain issues.

Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky, took a similar stance towards the US President after he was elected into office, stating that the short-term renting business would be providing free housing for refugees and anyone not allowed in the US. Of course, this tweet made him terribly unpopular with Trump supporters – but it did increase his popularity with Airbnb customers.

However, we are seeing more and more brands getting dragged into the political arena – often being forced to choose a side. Closer to home we saw things get a little messy during the UK-EU referendum, where some brands were coming under scrutiny for being associated with the “wrong” side of the debate, such as advertising in newspapers that had a strong stance on Brexit.

“A brand has significant values which are an important part of its existence – these need to be protected from harmful associations, whether it happens from news content on a site or accidental association, perhaps through programmatic buying of media,” says ISBA’s Director of Public Affairs, Ian Twinn.

Having an opinion on diversity or social issues is one thing, but in an age of IPOs and investor relationships, having a stance on polarising political issues can have a huge impact on the bottom line – so making a political stance shouldn’t be a decision taken lightly.

A good way to decide where you sit in the political/social spectrum is by imaging how your brand would come across to other people if it were a human. What would its core personality traits be? What would it consider to be of importance? This may sound silly, but it is a quick and easy way to define your style of communication and effectively engage your target audience.

The big question: do consumers actually care?

The short answer: yes!

Let’s take a look at some figures. A recent study by Lloyds Banking Group, which was shown exclusively to Marketing Week, reports that 65% of respondents feel more favourable towards a brand that reflects diversity in its advertising – and 67% expect brands to actively represent people from diverse backgrounds in their ads.

However, these expectations are out of sync with reality. Only 19% of people portrayed in advertising are from minority groups, the study found, and of that 19%, only 0.06% are people with disabilities or from the LGBT community, and just 0.29% are single parents.

Of course, these figures contrast radically with the UK’s diverse population – with 17.9% of people having disabilities, 1.7% belonging to the LGBT community, and 25% being single parents.

This lack of diversity in advertising was backed up by a recent Unilever study which found 40% of women don’t recognise themselves in any of the ads they see. The study also found just under 3% of ads portray women as being clever or funny – and just under 3% feature women in leadership, managerial, or professional roles.

While having a diverse range of cast and characters sends around a positive message about your brand, it also makes your advertising considerably more relevant. The Lloyds study also found that only 47% of people feel accurately portrayed in advertising, meaning over half of ads are missing the mark.

What happens when brands don’t practice what they preach?

Your customers want you to take a stance on diversity or other social issues, and they want you to incorporate diversity into your ad campaigns, but it has to come from within.

Too fruity? By within we mean the values and moral standpoints you choose to broadcast need to be practiced internally as well. Does your team come from a diverse background? Is there a wide range of different people in leadership positions? What do they see as being important?

Think about the origins of your business – the specific strengths of the brand that made it great, and the reason why the brand exists to this day. Knowing what your company stands for and what your customers stand for helps define the higher-level contribution the brand brings to its customers.

Last year, H&M launched a TVC that featured an extremely broad range of different women (wearing H&M clothes of course) along to the Tom Jones classic ‘She’s a Lady’. The campaign showcased women with big muscles and armpit hair, and transgendered women, and women in high-powered executive roles, and women “man-spreading” on the train.

Overall, it shared a very positive message – that women can be exactly who they want to be. However, this ad surfaced around the same time as shocking reports that factory workers making H&M’s clothing lines in Cambodia were working unreasonably long hours, being paid below minimum wage – and the stinger, routinely firing women when they became pregnant.

The key here is to make sure you practice what you preach – and while making a bold and risky statement can work wonders, it is not for every brand.

For example, when US superstar Beyoncé released her single, Formation, the new track made a reference to the seafood family restaurant chain Red Lobster.

The business started trending on Twitter, and saw an increase in sales of over 33% nationwide. For most brands, this time in the spotlight would be considered on par with finding the Holy Grail, and all it takes is one witty response on Twitter to boost sales by another 33%.

But Red Lobster took hours to reply, and when they did finally respond it was with a rather half-hearted tweet: ‘Cheddar Bey Biscuits having a nice ring to it’.


In the song, the reference to Red Lobster is intertwined with to some fairly provocative references to (hushed tone) coitus – a message that contrasts strongly with the conservative, family-friendly food joint.

Sure, this might not get them a lot of extra attention on Twitter – but Red Lobster made the right decision – because the reference wasn’t consistent with the brand and its customers.


In a time when many major brands are choosing to advocate against sexism in the workplace, or Donald Trump, or the stigmas attached to people with disabilities, the frontiers between our existence as consumers, parents or individuals become blurred.

Essentially, we have entered an era where the key to building brands is focused on people, not consumers, but it’s important to remember that behind Malteasers kind and caring ad campaign is a strategy, and the same applies to Coca-Cola, Diesel and Lynx.

When creating your next ad campaign, make sure that your message is aligned with your company structure and ethos, but it’s also worth noting that what your customers say they want and what actually appeals to them can be two very different things.

You know your brand, and you know your target audience, so the right answer should be right there staring you in the face. Here at ad agency Scorch London, we help brands to define their purpose and their communication objectives – get in touch with our friendly team to discuss how your campaign could benefit from the right messaging.