Nightmare on Madison Avenue

Stephen Colbert’s stinging satire of Super Bowl “feel good” commercials (see here) last week might have caused more than a few marketing executives to have fitful, pre-game nightmares like this one:

In a bid to put your brand on the map in a major way, you push your ad agency to come up with a powerful commercial worthy of spending $5 million for 30-seconds of airtime on the Super Bowl. The agency comes back with the idea that your company should express the values behind your brand and, like the Super Bowl and the NFL, associate your company with the great virtues of America. The creative and analytical types recommend a concept celebrating America’s diversity, a narrative of unity, tolerance and understanding.

After internal debate and discussion, you conclude with your colleagues that such a commercial would set your company apart in admirable ways. The concept tests well, and the agency’s initial work proves to be strikingly innovative and compelling, and in line with your brand. You authorize the expenditure of millions of dollars in production costs. The commercial turns out to be everything you hoped for – inspiring and dramatic, a clarion call to good citizenship.

But the response is not what you had hoped. The day after Super Bowl, a late-night comedy show parodies your ad as “the mushiest, the most manipulative commercial on the Super Bowl.” Immigrant advocacy groups light up Twitter with statistics showing your company is far from diverse when compared to the general population, and that your management team and board are still majority old, white and male. Worse, critics charge that the majority of your diverse workforce is earning meager, below-subsistence level wages, and has no access to healthcare.

Social media activists dig up examples of donations by your senior executives to politicians and organizations regarded by the activists as holding anti-immigrant, racist, sexist, and discriminatory positions. From the other side, trolls on Twitter and Facebook call out the ad as dangerously naïve, a predictable view of “global elites,” and worse. Voices on both sides are urging their followers to avoid your products.

Nor does this critical scrutiny stop at discrimination issues, now that you’ve made your splash with a Super Bowl ad. Advocacy groups that have been on the other side some of the consumer regulatory changes and environment rollbacks your company has been lobbying for in Washington take advantage of your higher profile to step up their attacks. The critics call attention to your hefty (in their view) lobbying budget and the money you’ve expended on your campaign and your Super Bowl ad to sway public opinion and (again, in their view) hide your company’s evil intent.

This is when the marketing executive sits bolt upright in bed with pounding heart and sweaty brow. “It’s just not worth it,” is their first panicky thought. Why would any marketing executive be eager for their company to crawl out on the limb of social issue advocacy in a world featuring a toxic social media environment that’s turned Twitter into the rhetorical equivalent of a 24-hour Ultimate Fighting match?

The answer for many companies is that it is worth it and it is the right thing to do. First, having positioned their brands as choices that appeal to their customers on a level of expression and emotion rather than simply benefits and features, they’re finding harder to “close the deal” if they don’t directly address their brands’ underlying values. Moreover, they may find themselves under competitive attack from emerging brands who seek to generate the customer connection through values and what we now widely describe as “purpose.” In short, customers and workforces increasingly look for this affirmation and must be authentic in their belief, engagement, and actions.

While it’s easy to identify a range of risks when companies take stands on social issues, it’s also easy to overstate them. Though we think of “purpose” driven ads as being a comparatively new concept, the fact is that there is a long history of companies taking public stands on a range of issues, sometimes on very specific policy topics. Some have been successful, while others have had only modest or no impact. The best of this genre adheres to a few basic guidelines.

First, they talk in genuine and specific terms about what the company is doing to promote its view of positive values in its operations and community engagement. Highly general, strongly emotional appeals (like the one parodied by Colbert) rarely play as well with the public, particularly if they try to hold up the company and its brand as paragons of corporate citizenship. Wisely managed companies present themselves as striving for improvement – making progress but far from perfect. Even better to cast the company in the role of supporting communities’ and individuals’ effort to tackle significant problems or issues.

Second, smart marketers will be careful about overstating the extent to which their products or services are “changing the world” or are powerful forces for good. That kind of overreach, of course, is the wickedly funny punchline of Colbert’s satire (spoiler alert!) – that, yes, it’s napkins that are bringing us together. At the end of the day, a company need only show it’s using its resources for responsible purposes and in ways that align with the brand’s promise. Few reasonably people expect perfection from companies or other organizations in their lives, but they do expect honesty.

Finally, great ads in the “purpose” or “responsibility” category demonstrate confidence and continuity by staying relevant to their history and current customers. They know their customers and workforces have different views on social issues and will continually evolve. But they’re confident in their strong following and have a keen sense (through research and experience) of the makeup of their customer and employee bases. They also understand that sometimes it’s helpful to have the right critics.

It is unfortunate that so many brands missed the opportunity to make their mark during this year’s Super Bowl. For the most part advertisers steered away from taking risks, making a true commitment, and delivering authentic, purpose-driven advertising. A handful of brands did find a way to integrate their brand’s values into their commercials, including Coke which focused on universality, diversion and inclusion; Budweiser which featured commitment to wind power; Microsoft which showed how its Xbox Adaptive controller enables gamers with disabilities to find ways to play; Google which featured the most translated phrases – “How are you?”, “Thank you” and “I love you;” and Bumble which embraced female empowerment.

There has been a lot of attention on how the public is looking to corporations and CEOs to take a stand and be a force for good on the most important issues facing our society and world. Regrettably, for all of us watching the Super Bowl last night, that opportunity was mostly missed. One has to question why so many marketers and companies ultimately decided to play it safe. We must hope that this was not a sign of disinterest and – possibly – irrelevance, or belief that it really isn’t worth it. That would be the true nightmare.