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The Influencers

Lip Service: Bad for Brands, Good for Society

INFLUENCER: Purpose-driven ads have the power to tip the zeitgeist and change a social narrative, writes Grey New York's Emily Waite

Lip Service: Bad for Brands, Good for Society

This past LGBTQ Pride Month was full of loud-and-proud corporate support for equality and empowerment, but (like most years) left many with the suspicion that brands are writing briefs that ask, “what are we doing for Pride?” instead of “what are we doing for LGBTQ people?” The nuance has a dramatic impact on the work, and subsequently, the consumer response – whether for International Women’s Day, Black History Month, or beyond. 

With political tension and social division at an all-time high, it seems like every brand has something to say for goodwill. As a result, work that should feel like a disruptive rallying cry has, instead, become a noisy chorus.

But is that so wrong? When a chorus is calling for equality… isn’t that ok?

During SXSW, co-founder of women’s social club The Wing Audrey Gelman voiced her opinion on brands that ride the wave of fourth wave feminism inauthentically: “Brands have to be wary of slapping their logo on something, colouring it pink, and calling it progress.” 

Wise advice as discerning consumers grow increasingly unwilling to dole out credit to brands that are all talk, no action. McDonald’s was criticised for its 'W' stunt, which lacked substantive contribution beyond, well, the message itself. But, amid this criticism, a simple truth is overlooked: a slew of purpose-driven ads, even if they offer nothing more than lip service, have the power to tip the zeitgeist and change a social narrative. Despite the lack of action behind the gesture, the 'W' was one more glowing beacon of support in a world where, just a short while ago, those beacons were harder to find.

Activist Jean Kilbourne, who explored the connection between advertising and public health issues, once said, “Ads sell more than products. They sell normalcy.” Therein lies the crux of why socially driven advertising is suddenly making us feel so… 'ick!' The power of reducing stigmas also means losing impact. Your message is no longer new; it is increasingly normal. This normalcy benefits broad perceptions related to social issues, but can earn a brand a reputation for being another to jump on the bandwagon.  

Because of recent backlash to brand advocacy, Grey conducted a study titled The Famously Effective Business of Togetherness, examining consumer perspectives on national division and providing a road map for brands to bring people together. The study demonstrates that togetherness is a significant concern for Americans; 63% are dissatisfied with the current state of unity, and 88% agree 'we must unite and come together'.

However, people are wary of brand involvement: 60% think brands should still try to bring people together, but 50% think brands should stop getting political and instead focus on selling. How do you speak to social issues or do social good without getting 'political'?

Brands like Cheerios and Dove, both of which won major brownie points for their early advocacy (for same-sex couples and women’s empowerment respectively) couldn’t have the same impact today with the same work. Where we once praised these messages for their existence alone, we now ask, “But what are you DOING about it?” The opportunity for a brand to win credit for lip service alone is gone.

But it’s not all bad news. Of the 12 'togetherness' ads we tested as part of our study, two stood out in terms of believability. In fact, both brands achieved 45% believability – significantly higher than the norm of 37%. In each of these cases, the brand’s message was clearly linked to its business. And one of those brands, a science, technology, and engineering brand, was a great example of actions mattering more than words – that brand used its platform not only to advocate for more women in science careers, but also to show how they were putting time, money, and resources behind the cause. That difference proved enough to earn increased believability scores.

So for those who want to continue to contribute to the chorus with words alone, we thank you for your service; just know that it’s probably not doing you any favours. While 73% of consumers said a brand has made them feel togetherness, more than half claim their buying behaviour is unaffected by those efforts. So in a world where unsubstantiated gestures inspire little more consumer action than a smile or an eye roll, those 'all talk, no action' brands inadvertently become the true altruists – making ads that change culture but not their own business.

One strategy leaves room for a win-win. Take REI's 'Opt Outside' campaign: it matched words with action, closed stores and sacrificing revenue on the year’s biggest shopping day to prove how much it cared. That’s the loophole. Nay – the opportunity! When brands act on behalf of a cause and put their necks on the line – through financial contributions, policy change and better practices – instead of just speaking, it stops being just lip service. 

That’s good for the brand, AND good for society.



Emily Waite is a strategist at Grey New York

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