Advertising vs. Social Responsibility

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So, this happened...

I’m in an Uber with my elderly parents, being driven from New Jersey to my home in New York City, the three of us heads down in the New York Times crossword puzzle. As we inched through traffic toward the Lincoln Tunnel, I thought i heard snoring. And yes, I heard snoring. The driver had fallen asleep!

As much as I’m not one to cause trouble for someone putting in an honest day’s work, I did report this incident to Uber due to the danger factor. They issued a refund and said they were reviewing the case. Apparently, they felt that was enough. Not being satisfied, I followed up with Uber again, only to receive the same templated email saying they were looking into it. No apology for the scare. Nothing more. Case closed. Four months and not another word from Uber on the matter since.

Being an all too frequent watcher of cable news, it’s hard to miss the nonstop “apology” ads — Uber, Facebook, Wells Fargo (and other troubled corporate entities) telling us over and over again how they’re going to do better.

As someone who runs a business that concerns itself with helping corporations, nonprofits, and communities drive tangible social change, these “apology” ads — and many other ads hinting at corporate responsibility  — pop out at me. They elicit the question, is there any there there?

Over the past four years, Impact Collaborative has conducted an informal audit of Super Bowl ads with a “socially conscious” message. The audit was originally part of a feasibility study for a major advertising firm that was exploring a CSR function. We’ve continued to assess the Super Bowl ads each year out of utter fascination. Of the many advertisers with a social message, less than 5% (on average) have any genuine connection with the message being conveyed. Less than 5%!

During last year’s Superbowl, a much talked about example was the highly criticized Dodge Ram commercial. Simply put, the ad overlaid a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., about the value of service, to sell trucks. We can all agree (and did) that this was a huge disconnect on Dodge’s part.

A less obvious and, in my opinion, far more manipulative and hypocritical form of this advertising is the unsubstantiated “apology” ad. Being a sucker for a good redemption story, I really do want to believe that Uber, Facebook, and Wells Fargo have learned from their mistakes and are on a path to being good corporate citizens. But then I’m confronted with constant stories about Facebook using customer data in even more dubious ways; another scandal rocking Wells Fargo; and experiences like mine with Uber.

Ad agencies need to be the heroes for their clients by recommending action and, in turn, creative direction that aligns with reality. Consumers and investors won’t buy apologies when they aren’t backed by positive, sustainable actions.

Building valid CSR strategies into ad campaigns will take corporate advertising — and investment — to the next level. This level of service requires true integration by skilled strategists beyond the creatives and account managers; a different set of talents that help tie it all together. Having this type of talent within an agency is going to be table stakes as young consumers come into their buying power.

Take BNP Paribas’ Bank of the West. Their recent campaign within San Francisco’s transit system was a game changer, positioning the removal of tobacco investment from their portfolios as a differentiator — walking their talk of financing the economy in ethical ways. It’s all connected. And when it isn’t, you get Dodge.

Andrea PellegrinoComment