Using A Social Cause: Profit or Profiteering

Advertising justifies its existence when used in the public interest-it is much too powerful a tool to use solely for commercial purposes.” – Howard Gossage

One of the hottest trends in advertising is using social causes. Marketers make poignant statements while at the same time build associations and sell junk.

Majority of the people would say that companies should address social issues but the attempt should be genuine i.e. to align causes to their strategy and not just using it for one-time marketing. Otherwise, it couldn’t be called cause marketing.

Here is an example of a campaign:- NO MORE BLACK TARGETS. The video starts with the fact that last year 263 black men have been killed by guns, of whom 69% were non-violent and unarmed. What if unconscious bias is deadly?

In partnership with New York Society For Ethical Culture, they are trying to improve lives of the members of a certain community who, most of the times are seen through ill judgmental lenses which definitely affects the general perception and makes them a symbol of wrongdoing and threat. It is evident from stats that gap between them and their counterparts (whites) for arrests and deaths is somewhere similar to that of the sky & land, despite the available pieces of evidence proving similar share of the white population when it comes down to competition based on evil acts. But arrests and killings for blacks are much higher for no good reason. My point is don’t you think that above campaign could become a good example of cause-related marketing if “No More Black Targets Movement” was a business entity selling guns and ammunition and at the same time spreading awareness for a cause?

And it’s not like companies are not doing it. Examples are there which demonstrates that cause marketing is here to stay and can really benefit society if done properly.

But it’s a different story if someone uses the hard work of others and just overwrites it with its own purpose. That’s the message one would give if done insensitively. A similar case was found in a Pepsi ad which allegedly appropriated the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement. (BLM is an international movement that campaigns against violence and racism against black people and holds protests police brutality and racial discrimination both online & offline). It was criticized by a lot and after receiving comments from the likes of Martin Luther King Junior’s daughter, Bernice King, Pepsi pulled out the ad.

 If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi” – Bernice King

They also issued an apology statement:

Pepsi was trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding,Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize.

We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.

It affected Coke too. Its stock prices fell due to the incident and affected the image of the whole industry negatively. Here is the ad and let’s name it, “BLUE is everywhere and BLUE is a solution.”

Youth from different backgrounds & culture came together and celebrate in the end, all because of a sweat carbonated drink packed in an aluminum can with Pepsi logo.” That’s the message I receive.

Many complained that it mocked BLM (which began after so many deaths at the hands of police) by imposing a solution of peace offering (i.e. Pepsi) from the victims and not by the police. Some have also interpreted that the company was trying to compare the heroic act of Ieshia Evans, who stood firmly in front of police (in Indiana last year during a BLM protest) by showing that the situation could be handled in a different way.

Forcing their way into social conversations to which they are not invited to is nothing new for companies. But it is necessary to understand the pulse of the audience linked. It’s hard to believe how such a big company missed on doing a basic market research or may have done it wrong. And also continuously slamming ‘Pepsi Can’ in the face while talking about such a serious issue was beyond the limit people could handle. It was believed to be preachy till the end.

Is it my hindsight bias talking? Let’s try to understand the ad:-

Life is tough and sure people suffer because of the ills of others. But today’s youth is a better breed who instead of cribbing; keep trying and work hard. Whether it’s a musician, photographer or anyone, all are dedicated toward things they believe in. But sometimes it doesn’t work out and we kinda get stuck. Don’t give in to the darkness. Clear your head and get a fresh perspective. Now the pain has taught you humility and you are ready to meet others who have gone through the same pain and struggle. Now everybody understands others! Respect others! and have come together – dancers, musicians, actors all working in harmony. This could be a direct message from Pepsi.

But what could be they wanted to achieve. How does this work – campaigns and stuff? I have a theory. Try to remember a time when you have a strong feeling of something(could be freedom, love or dealing with hard times) and you kept listening to the same music, watching the same painting or going to a church or did whatever was your thing to relax. That music or painting now stores those precious feelings and memories; whenever you listen to it, you recall! You recall how hard you worked and how passionately you followed your dream. And that music now becomes the most important part of your life which helps you to recall that passion and encourage you to keep going in the future. Is that what Pepsi was trying to do? Trying to associate some hard feelings with Pepsi.

Now watch the video again.

What if Pepsi’s experiment was just to do this but worked out wrong. I think they did a lot of things right. They choose Skip Marley‘s ‘Lions’ song which goes hand-in-hand with the message and movement. He said:

“Young people are the future of the world. It’s a new generation, a new start. We can do it better. We’re growing; as people, we’re supposed to grow, we’re supposed to learn, and the next generation grows and learns, you know? It’s our time now.”

They didn’t violate any of the 13 Principles of the movement and didn’t show anyone in the bad light. A young successful person (Jennifer in the ad) taking a break for the greater good. The ad does promote strength and togetherness. It did make a lot of people aware of the cause including me.

But instead of choosing the ‘Pepsi logo’ they chose ‘Pepsi Can’ to reflect those emotions. It changed the purpose of the campaign because a logo could be a persona that stands for something good and ‘Can’ is a product. A container of a sweet drink to be sold! It changed the campaign into a mere advertisement to sell. In the end ‘Pepsi Can’ became the symbol which reminded people the main purpose of the campaign – ‘Selling Soda’.

The process should be to capture the pulse of the movement and feelings of the people in this beautifully made campaign and store it in the logo. And then wait. Let people come on their own to consume it. To experience it! And later on, the taste would’ve become the experience and reflect those feelings.

In short, cause marketing and related campaigns is an awesome way to benefit both factions of society if done properly, i.e. after proper research and study. It could be helpful for boosting awareness and making people sensitive towards a social cause simultaneously. While at the same time, it could be used and are being used by marketers for perception management and increasing presence. But while dealing with strong feelings or movements, one way could be sponsoring it instead of brainwashing people to buy products. In the above case, a brand association could be enough instead of sales advertisement.

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  1. Pingback: Marketing Ethics: Kidology/Fate – My Marketing Door

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