Can Advertising Do Good?

This year’s advertising award shows were dominated by projects for good causes, some for charities, others for brands keen to demonstrate a social conscious. The latter have been cited as evidence of the power of brands and their advertising to influence people in a positive way. But how genuine are these projects? Can they make a long-term difference to lives, or are they just self-serving PR exercises? Grey London ECD Nils Leonard, and William Fowler, creative director at Headspace and CR columnist, discuss.

This year’s advertising award shows were dominated by projects for good causes, some for charities, others for brands keen to demonstrate a social conscience. The latter have been cited as evidence of the power of brands and their advertising to influence people in a positive way. But how genuine are these projects? Can they make a long-term difference to lives, or are they just self-serving PR exercises? Grey London ECD Nils Leonard, and William Fowler, creative director at Headspace and CR columnist, discuss.

The Axe Peace campaign by BBH London (above and top) aimed to raise awareness of the Peace One Day charity while selling deodorant

Nils Leonard: Sex used to be what sold. Now it’s ‘good’. Outside of making ourselves feel good, there is a realisation that ‘good’ sells. It’s what’s on our Facebook, it’s what we share. So marketers are looking at that asking ‘how can we play a part?’ For me though, it’s more powerful when brands are really behind it. It’s one thing doing good on a charity brief and another doing good on a cheese brief.

William Fowler: I kind of agree with this. Alex Bogusky has this cool idea about ‘information asymmetry’. That it used to be that you could just pretend you were doing good, because the brand always knew more than the consumer. But if the consumer knows just as much as the brand, you actually have to do good, in order to be seen to be good. My problem is that a lot of the changes that you need to make to ‘do good’ run deeper than advertising.

NL: Good as a brief forces you to actually make stuff. People are sick of ad spaff and manifestos, so any creative trying to make a difference will look at ‘good’ on a brief and try to actually create an experience that does something.

WF: But don’t you think that, if you’re looking to your ad agency to be your conscience, you’re really looking in the wrong place?

NL: Totally. But if I were given the choice between a cheese spending 500k making an ad with a talking dog or 500k helping some people out, I’d choose the latter.

WF: I hear that. But don’t you think there’s a chance that this stuff is always fairly tokenistic?

NL: You can certainly spot the stuff that’s made for awards. That’s where I start worrying about how ‘good’ is affecting the industry.

WF: This sort of work does tend to be peculiarly scam-inducing. I’d argue that, in a way, it was always phony.

NL: Yep. And you can smell it. Juries are starting to revolt. These days we’re much less interested in how many hits on Youtube you had, you award the idea and its integrity. Ryman Eco was trying to offset the problem of printing. A legitimate concern. So I figure it was the right thing to do. Case study videos are an art form though, and some are complete fiction.


The Ryman Eco font, by Grey London and Monotype’s Dan Rhatigan, aims to become the world’s most beautiful sustainable font

WF: So, the Ryman thing, Nils…

NL: Not buying it?

WF: Couldn’t you have just advised people to use an existing type? Why did you have to make a new type?

NL: Because honestly, eco friendly fonts are ass ugly.

WF: But Baskerville is a pretty distinguished font. Nice serif. But uses less ink.

NL: I think people already associate good and being eco friendly with a compromise on beauty.

WF: It’s clear that Ryman wanted to be seen to be doing good, but they would still like me to buy shitloads of paper.

NL: Yep, it’s the tension for sure.

WF: So I think the danger with this stuff is that it’s tokenistic because it’s a sticking plaster over the deeper sacrifices that companies would need to make to be truly environmentally friendly.

NL: That’s true.

WF: And that it’s actually dangerous, because it allows consumers to keep consuming without sacrifice.

NL: OK. But if this means someone in a boardroom is having the conversation instead of not having the conversation, then isn’t that good? Would you rather they hadn’t?

WF: Yeah, kind of. It’s like a racist cannibal.

NL: Wow. That’s amazing.

WF: Like if you’re a racist cannibal you won’t eat Chinese people. But you’re still a cannibal.

NL: I don’t think Ryman or anyone trying to do good is hoping the world will suddenly love them. These are companies run by people. And people inherently want to do the right thing.

WF: Sure. And look, I still work in advertising. Albeit, these days, I work in-house.

NL: Slag.

Dove Real Beauty Sketches by Ogilvy Brasil revealed how unforgiving women could be about their self-image

WF: Hahaha. To me it seems less wasteful. You can choose the client, and help them spread their product. And maybe influence their product. Whereas in ad agencies, you’re only playing with the marketing budget. So the changes you can introduce are very small and tokenistic. Like doing a nice eco font. Unilever do all that Dove stuff. But they also do Axe.

NL: Maybe. You’ve got me thinking though. When you’re running companies/agencies you suddenly wake up and become aware of the waste you make. I wonder if agencies are as accountable as they should be. We’ve tried to get our whole network to use that font. Small thing though when you realise it’s our choice.

WF: Also, that advertising is inherently wasteful. Because you’re causing people to want more than they need. So that’s a political act.

NL: You sound like you’re saying that unless the whole entity is good (like a charity) then it’s just bullshit. I don’t buy that. If we could choose between Dove making that conversation about beauty famous or not I say they should.

WF: But I don’t think Dove are actually raising that issue or engaging with it in any real way. They pay lip-service to it, but in the end they’re not taking any risks, the women in their campaigns are still objectively attractive.

Climate Name Change by Barton F Graf 9000

NL: You know what’s interesting is how stuff is shared. Like Climate Name Change which was fiction, but shared.

WF: Yeah, I think that’s interesting, and maybe helps to explain the rise in this stuff. That when people share something, they’re also sending a message about themselves.

NL: Always.

WF: So that message is ‘I’m a smart environmental person’.

NL: They didn’t make Climate Name Change happen. It’s an ad agency case study. But it’s a powerful idea. We need a new word for that.

WF: I think the word for that is still actually ‘bullshit’.

NL: Hehe. We used to have work that ran and work that didn’t though. ‘Running’ in this case is the fact it was shared. It’s a middle ground. So if I make something good happen for HSBC, are you going to hate on me?

WF: Well, I kind of am, I’m afraid. Because they might still be investing in electrified police batons in Singapore or whatever. And I think your good stuff is acting as a cover for them. It’s not the agency’s fault, you’re doing a great job answering your brief, but you’re misleading people vis-a-vis the corporate ideology.

Sweetie by Lemz Amsterdam, a project created for children’s charity Terres des Hommes, that aimed to snare paedophiles.

NL: Agencies should actually make more. If we could grow brands from the ground up, create them, instead of responding to cultural rubs, and give brands a voice then maybe they’d be more purpose driven? That’s the dream though… We convince ourselves, you know, that we can influence through our work.

WF: But I think this is the other reason that this stuff is on the rise. That agencies are full of people like you, Nils, who genuinely want to do good. But unfortunately work in advertising. Which is, by and large, not a force for good in the world. And by doing this stuff you can feel better about that role. Mediating between people and the story of late capitalism.

NL: It’s in everything though. I mean, most people in ads kid themselves they’re on the way to making entertainment. But that’s just as crammed with the sell. And, sadly but truly, selling stuff is fun.

WF: Yeah, I’m with you on that. Even more fun if you’re selling something good. But, to be mindful of the reality of the situation, we’re only so comfortable in this country because all our manufacturing is done in China. So just participating in modern British society means you’re contributing to a great deal of misery elsewhere.

I was about to quote Walter Benjamin. Always best to stop before that happens I find. Nice to virtually meet you Nils.

NL: You too mate. I’ve got a turbocharged meat product to make a church out of. Bye.

This article appears in the September issue of Creative Review magazine. More info on the issue is here.

  • Shayna Lowe

    Originally, I was drawn to this article because it raised the idea that advertising could actually be good/used for good, instead of just selling a product. This was especially interesting to me, after my marketing class discussed earlier this week that advertising in general gets a bad reputation.
    This article, however, raised a question of whether or not advertising could be for good. The article goes on to say that advertising “the good”, causes brands to actually have to do good things, because the consumers will know if they do not. For example, Dove promotes “love the skin you’re in”, which in essence is a good thing – it’s teaching people (women) to love themselves, despite what social media depicts, while also selling soap and other beauty products. They do this by using seemingly average looking individuals in their commercials, as a way of showing that they mean what they say – that it’s okay not to be perfect or have the skinniest body with flawless skin. The article goes on to discuss whether or not the companies are actually meaning “the good” or just pretending like it, in order to sell more of their product. My question is whether or not that actually matters, so long as “the good” is still being put out into the consumer world by the advertising. Basically, does the motive behind these ads actually matter, or are they still beneficial because they advertise “good”?
    Personally, I think the motive behind the advertisement does matter. I think that companies should actually believe what they are saying. I don’t think that using “good” things as just a means to sell a product is morally salient. In some ways, I think that does more harm than good because it almost makes a joke out of doing good things, and makes it into just a cheap, advertising campaign, rather than a good thing. As a consumer, I think it does make a difference to me whether or not a company stands behind their slogans. However, as a consumer, I can also appreciate that companies would focus on “the good” as a selling point, rather than using something like sex to sell. In my personal opinion, even if it is behind false motives, it is way better to fill social media with some sort of positivity, rather than the negative or playing off of peoples’ insecurities to sell a product. In the end, I would much rather a company like Dove pretend to be selling “love the skin you’re in” and using still somewhat attractive models, rather than Dove out-and-out just selling a perfect body. So, overall, I personally believe that advertising can ultimately be used for good.

  • Duncan Youel

    No matter how many delusive twists and turns and mental gyrations we make in attempting to accept the ideas, advertising and marketing will always cause problems of morality because it invents purely in order to generate profit. that’s the real bottom line, as it were. On this basis anything goes, and does. Every single business day. Forget the ridiculous notion of “the good” or ethical capitalism or whatever. We have to put up with this shit all the time in order to keep going. Doh! See Bill Hicks—”Advertising is the devil’s work. No, really…”

  • Red Snapper

    “..self-serving PR exercises.” You nailed it in your opening paragraph. Let’s move on.

  • Peter Post

    If advertising remains “making people buy stuff”, it certainly will always cause more problems than it is capable of solving. But take a brilliant ad agency, change the service into “social innovation”, and the same people will create ideas that serve people, solve real problems and still generate good profit for brands. The real issue is: Are we brilliant enough?