Illustration: Sara Bogovich

What’s in an Ad?

Back Commentary Feb 4, 2019 By Allison Joy

Advertising can elevate to an artform. The best ads center on storytelling, work in artistic mediums and can be as unforgettable as a striking song, quote or image. Advertising is rooted in the art of persuasion. If seduction is an artform, so is advertising.

People will likely discuss Gillette’s most recent ad campaign for years, even decades to come. It is a well-produced, poetic advert wrapped in social commentary, in which the razor company allies itself with a broad social movement focused on redefining masculinity. It closes with Gillette pledging $1 million a year for three years to the rather vague “boys causes.”  (According to Ad Week, Gillette’s global advertising spend in 2011 was $800 million.)

Gillette is not alone. Nike took a stance when it made Colin Kaepernick the face of its new ad campaign last year; 84 Lumber’s 2017 Super Bowl ad showed a mother and daughter enter the U.S. through a door in a border wall. In fact, while only 6 percent of Super Bowl ads featured some element of corporate social responsibility from 2008-2017, Forbes reported that 2018 saw a quarter of ads support causes.

But based on the internet’s reaction, one might think Gillette is the new leader of the anti-toxic masculinity movement. And that’s kind of ridiculous.

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I’m not saying it’s a bad ad — far from it. It’s caught the attention of consumers and moved viewers in a way few ads do. It’s also smart: Studies show that millennials, quickly becoming the largest living generation, care significantly more than their predecessors about a business’ social values.  Gillette, which has been losing market share to new players like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club, has seemed content to promote traditional gender stereotypes since it invented the ladies razor in 1915. It has also come under scrutiny for a “pink tax” applied only to feminine products. I think it’s safe to say that the company’s potential long-term impact on gender roles or the lives of boys and young men is, at the very least, debatable.

A company’s true values are baked into the way it does business.

Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1 percent of sales “to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment.” The company recently announced it would donate $10 million toward environmental preservation groups just this year. Sure, Patagonia has a stake in the cause — that’s what makes their alignment with it authentic.

In 2012, Patagonia became California’s first benefit corporation — businesses with an “explicit social or environmental mission, and a legally binding fiduciary responsibility to take into account the interests of workers, the community and the environment, as well as its shareholders.” Capsity, a coworking community in Sacramento that provides space and resources to over 80 businesses, became one of the city’s first benefit corporations in 2013.

Beyond incubating startups, Capsity’s mission focuses on community development, nonprofit support, and social and youth entrepreneurship. Founder Jeff Louie tells me the intent is to bring resources to “low-resource, resilient neighborhoods” — to that end, they’ve purchased buildings in both Oak Park and on Del Paso Boulevard. Capsity’s fellowship program offers resources to socially-minded startups at no cost. The company also worked, pro bono, with the grassroots art nonprofit Sol Collective to help facilitate its purchase of a building next door to Capsity in Curtis Park.

Louie says meeting the expectations for benefit corporation standards requires additional resources, but that he wants Capsity to be an example of how, when running a business, “It does not need to be an either/or situation with regards to building wealth and being altruistic for your community.” He sees Capsity as part of a broader movement “to push the ripple of change towards constantly becoming better in how businesses and organizations serve their products, services and information to an interdependent global economy — and simultaneously care for the people that make the business run.”

Are benefit corporations the only businesses that have a positive social impact? Of course not. Can a culturally relevant, well-produced and timely ad campaign have ripple effects? Absolutely. But if consumers truly want to target businesses whose values align with their own — or avoid those whose do not — they should first consider how a business truly does business.