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Are Companies the New Faces of Social Change?

Matt Haig, in his book, Brand failures: the truth about the 100 biggest branding mistakes of all time, includes a quote from Thomas J. Barratt, a British man that many consider to be the “the father of modern advertising.”  The quote says: “Tastes change, fashions change, and the advertiser has to change with them. An idea that was effective a generation ago would fall flat, stale, and unprofitable if presented to the public today. Not that the idea of today is always better than the older idea, but it is different – it hits the present taste.”

Today, advertising is a $600 billion industry that is all-encompassing and all-reaching.  Although the current ad industry may employ different techniques to reach customers than it did in Barratt’s time, some principles, like Barratt’s idea of the constant need for change and adaptation, still hold true even today.

With popular headlines like “Why Dodge Trucks Save” and “‘I use a Gillette’, say 9 out of 10 Corporation Executives”, many older ads from the first half of the 20th century were very much focused upon the features of the products and the self-image of the consumer.  This style of advertising made sense to an American population that was fresh off of World War II and ready to spend their newfound money on now-accessible goods.

Today, however, the consumer markets are beginning to demand a very different form of product from the private sector: social responsibility.  With recent studies showing that nine in ten millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause, the rising generations are demanding more and more from their companies.  It is no longer merely enough to push a superior product in terms of design, quality, and features.  It is becoming more and more important for businesses to promote moral and ethical behavior in many different facets.

Nowhere are the effects from this paradigm shift in expectations from the consumers more evident than in the realm of Super Bowl advertisements.

The Super Bowl has long been a microcosm of advertising darwinism as each year, millions of Americans gather around their televisions, smart phones, computers, and radios to tune into, not only the NFL Championship game, but to also the highly anticipated advertisements that air from some of the industry’s finest and largest.

Over the last 51 years, advertisers have spent roughly $4.9 billion in an attempt to capture the attention of American minds on this one night each year.  This figure is expected to balloon over the course of the upcoming decades as spending continues to increase exponentially.  In fact, the estimated $385 million spent on this year’s (2017) Super Bowl advertisements figures to be more than advertisers spent on the Super Bowls in the 1960’s – 1980’s combined.

One explanation for this rise in cost to advertise to today’s audiences could be the notoriety that comes from airing on America’s “biggest stage.”  With the influx of social media, Americans are barraged by messages from all people (not just businesses) all day long.  Although many American looks at the ads that pop up in their apps and on social media with disdain, there is an expectation set for the Super Bowl ads.  Americans look forward to these to set the bar for advertising over the course of the next year.

Alongside, yet distinct from, the trend of increased spending lies another trend: increasing amounts of political ads responding to hot-button social issues of the day.  Advertisements from companies like Budweiser, 84 Lumber, Audi, and AirBnB all centered around important issues like immigration, gender inequality, and racial tensions this past Super Bowl.

Where is all of this coming from?

According to Mintel Trends, these shifts in advertising are being necessitated by the young.  In a recent article, Mintel reported that “Engaging in cause marketing is one of many ways companies attempt to position their brands as ‘moral brands.’ Nearly half (47%) of respondents say cause marketing at least occasionally influences their purchasing decisions. It is likely that consumers are motivated to purchase cause-related products for the ‘feel good factor’ – 51% say they feel better buying from a company that supports a cause. Cause marketing can also influence consumer opinion of a company – 49% say cause marketing makes them feel more positive about a company/brand.”

Overall, Millennials are much more concerned about causes like environmental conservation, poverty, disaster relief, and social equality than their older counterparts are.

While a quick glance at these videos’ like/dislike ratings on YouTube may make one wonder just how effective these ads were at getting more of the public to desire their respective products, there were many companies, like Forbes, that used social media analytics to find that the general response from the public to these political ads was a positive one.  With the lowest approval rating being at 61 percent, it is safe to say that these ads not only generated a lot of media buzz, but that they were popular among consumers as well.

Regardless, the buzz in and of itself is often what the advertisers are attempting to achieve.  No matter how many “thumbs down” are cast on YouTube, advertisers are sometimes simply trying to increase their brand recognition power among the public.  In a social media-addicted world obsessed with sound bytes and buzzwords, certain terms like “diversity”, “race”, and “climate change” can lead even the simplest of ad campaigns to be shared many times due mainly to the fact that it is addressing a hot-button social issue.

However, this does not mean that companies should blindly declare that they support abstract notions of change in the hopes of increasing their profit margins and store traffic.  According to the same article from Mintel Trends, “[although] respondents agree with positive statements about cause marketing, they also express skepticism about the motives behind cause marketing and how much companies truly support the causes they align with.  These days, simply jumping on the cause marketing bandwagon is not enough to win consumers over since 44% agree that there are so many companies supporting causes that they don’t pay attention anymore. While supporting a cause usually won’t hurt a company, it seems necessary to go big or go home to truly impress consumers.”


What does this say about America today?

Los Angeles Times run online publication, the “HS Insider” offers up one explanation:

“In a post-9/11 world, people turned to superheroes. The industry [reflected] the world around us, giving us not what we deserve, but what we need: hope, assurance, conflict, resurrection, and more questions than we bargained for.

The nation, still reeling from the horrors of 9/11, flooded the theaters the following year, hitting a record high for U.S. admissions—1.64 billion moviegoers—in 2002, according to the 2006 U.S. Theatrical Market Statistics.  Spider-Man raked in the highest domestic growth of 2002, beating well-established franchises ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars.’ The nation clearly hungered for a figure who could save the country—or, in this case, at least defend New York.”

In the ensuing months, many Marvel and D.C. movies would be released that all delivered heroes as saviors that would appear to save the United States (or cities in the US) from the brink of disaster.  Even fictional government agencies, like S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Avengers, were held up as life-saving agencies that were there for the American public.

Perhaps we are turning to companies to be our modern-day heroes in a world where all that seems to be trumpeted over the various news outlets is yet another disaster or crisis.

Ironically, these same movies have highlighted how much America has changed.  Take Captain America for example.  Captain America represents much of what we believe the “Greatest Generation” to have been: selfless, optimistic, and morally black and white.  In Winter Soldier, the Captain finds himself thrown into a completely different America.  He didn’t go through Watergate, the Vietnam War, 9/11, or the War on Terror.  He now finds himself in a completely different world that operates according to a much different code than the one that he was familiar with in World War II.

Yet, while the rules of engagement may have changed, what Americans idealize may have not. Part of the reason that Captain America is so popular is that he represents a certain American ideal that many wish to return to/realize once more.

Although it remains to be seen if these ads are merely a temporary reflection of the political polarization found in D.C., each new generation is placing a larger and larger emphasis on equality, environmental responsibility, and international disaster relief.  Future generations may not be able to answer the question “where were you on 9/11?” with a definite location, but the values that have shaped America ever since may stick around for many years to come. In other words: this trend may be here to stay.

What’s more is that it is these generations that will soon control the wallets and purses of America.

In Neilsen’s 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report, it was found that “66% of global consumers say they’re willing to pay more for sustainable brands—up from 55% in 2014.”

Millennials, and the coming generations to follow, will soon control the lion’s share of the world’s spending money and they may dictate more and more social awareness/action from their companies.

What does this mean moving forward?

As advertisements continue to evolve to match trends in consumer appetites and behaviors, we will probably see more and more companies looking to support legitimate answers to social problems in the world around us.  Perhaps certain industries will be dominated less by celebrity endorsements and product performance?  Perhaps business leaders will gain increasing amounts of political power as they campion certain causes?  Perhaps these campaigns will become so prominent that it will burn itself out as more and more companies try to distance themselves from the “noise”.

Whatever the eventual impact that this trend could have, one thing is for certain: Americans are looking for heroes.

And for many consumers, they are willing to back up that desire with their wallets.

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