Advertising does Good

Nils Leonard, ECD at Grey London and William Fowler, Headspace creative director, discuss the trend for advertising with a social conscience

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? Are they making a long-term difference to lives or are they cynical self-serving PR exercises? Do they represent an exciting sea-change in society or do they simply serve to divert our attention from less palatable corporate behaviour? We invited Grey ECD Nils Leonard and William Fowler, a creative director at Headspace and CR columnist, to a GoogleChat to debate what happens when advertising attempts to ‘do good’.

Nils: 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 and another doing good on a cheese brief.

William: 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.

Nils: 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.

William: 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?

Nils: 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.

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

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

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

Nils: 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.

William: So, the Ryman thing, Nils…

Nils: Not buying it?

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

Nils: Because honestly eco friendly fonts are ass ugly.

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

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

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

Nils: Yep, it’s the tension for sure.

William: 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.

Nils: That’s true.

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

Nils: 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? 

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

Nils: Wow. That’s amazing.

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

Nils: 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.

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

Nils: Slag.

William: 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.

Nils: 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.

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

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.

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.

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

William: 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.

Nils: Always.

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

Nils: 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.

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

Nils: 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?

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.

Nils: 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.

William: 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.

Nils: 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.

William: 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.

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

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