How advertising’s role has evolved over the years
Advertising is more powerful than ever. It’s capable of selling stuff that doesn’t just make money but also the stuff that makes change.
It used to be that someone built a factory, made stuff they knew people needed, then sold it to people. Soon, everyone was at it. So, factory owners began to ‘brand’ their wares, quite literally.
They’d stamp their name into blocks of soap or stencil them onto the outer wax of a wheel of cheese. When things evolved to be wrapped in single serve portions, ‘packaging’ became a thing and they’d brand that with their name, too. And with that, ‘brands’ were established.
Before long, there were so many ‘brands’ making the same thing, each needed help to promote their product and so, they rented space on walls to paint signs.
Soon, those walls and spaces for signage were in huge demand so, the owners employed agents to sell their space. Agents grew to sell space across cities, regions and entire countries - offering the service of commercial artists to create imagery for brand owners to promote their goods. Boom: advertising agencies were born.
All the while, governments were making laws, introducing taxes, building health services, establishing public services and infrastructure, and generally determining every aspect of society one can imagine. The two could not have been more different in how and where they served the population.
So, at what point did brands and their advertising agents make the leap from sellers of goods to solving public challenges and leading societies to a cleaner and fairer future? At what point did the advertising industry become more powerful than some governments?
Wait! Did he just say the advertising industry is more powerful than some governments?
Yes, I just did.
In recent years we’ve seen many of today’s governments tying themselves in knots over putting up new walls of all kinds and maintaining old ones. And if declining election turn-outs are any indication, we’re seeing the distance between governments and their people grow greater by the year.
At the same time, brands and consumers are growing closer by the minute. With digital and social means, the more enlightened brands are enabling consumers to knock down all kinds of walls, every day.
When governments failed to find ways to curb the beauty industry’s dangerous and unobtainable ‘size zero’ image of beauty, Dove shifted society and the psyche of beauty with its ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’.
When government accepted and seemingly supported the demeaning attitudes toward women in Poland, Gazeta.pl took a stand, bought the most popular porn magazine and shut it down.
When government could not put the necessary school books in the hands of young Philippine kids, Smart Mobile made it happen with TXTBKS.
You get the picture.
And yet, it seems as an industry, we find ourselves in equal measure celebrating and slating the work that attempts to change societies, solve stigmas and bring about social change.
We are often vexed by the power we have to change the world with a nagging voice in our industry shouting: ‘Shouldn’t advertising stick to selling stuff?’
To which I would say, absolutely. But today, ‘stuff’ doesn’t just come in a packet on a shelf.
Those comments come from a corner of our industry that believes change is the domain of governments, NGO’s and legislators. In fact, I have been in more than one jury room where work has been questioned and voted against for trying to solve issues such as US gun laws. Simply because of a belief that; ‘no brand or charity will solve this issue. It’s a government issue’.
Hell, no it’s not. It’s a societal issue. And given brands are today as much a part of our society as any one of us, they have just as much responsibility to help solve those issues and challenges.
Equally, when it’s brands that are causing issues, we have a responsibility to find ways to help those brands change. That’s why every campaign we see that throws a spotlight on ways for supermarkets to stop using plastic bags matters. Because unless you’re fortunate enough to live in New Zealand where the government does change gun laws and outlaw single-use plastic bags, you need to do all you can to make the change.
Clearly, not all governments are making such sound decisions. And perhaps we should view our work with them just as we do with brands, choosing to work with them (or even refusing to work with them) so as to make more positive change. Ogilvy and Accenture in the US have recently been called out for working with the Customs and Border Protection agency when the New York Times recently revealed CBP are guilty of humanitarian issues at the Mexico border. Clearly ad agencies and consultancies cannot alter overnight the government policy causing the issues. Consequently, they’ve had to make a call on whether they believe in the government agency and how it conducts itself, continuing to work on their behalf or put pressure on the government by walking away from the business and likely all government business. (With Accenture’s CBP contract alone worth $297 million, that’s a decision the board would not take lightly.)
Thankfully, brands can be a powerful catalyst for effecting change in consumer behaviour and in society faster than most governments. Of course, India has some great examples of this. From P&Gs ‘Share the Load’ to Samsung’s ‘Tech School’ program focusing on educating girls. Evidence that today, advertising is more powerful than ever. It’s capable of selling stuff that doesn’t just make money but also the stuff that makes change. Advertising ain’t what it used to be. It’s changed, for the better.
(The author is global chief creative officer at Cheil Worldwide. Views expressed are personal.)