This year we’ve been treated to a blizzard of social purpose advertising. From the Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad to Heineken’s spot on equality, to the latest offering about immigration from Jigsaw, it seems that brands are increasingly seeking zeitgeisty social themes to connect their brand voice to.

Love them or loathe them, they’ve decided that they must take a position. To be clear, by ‘social purpose’ advertising here I am referring to those which overtly align their voice with a pressing topic of the day, as opposed to ads which simply step outside the usual stereotypes (e.g. the Maltesers Paralympics campaign).

And what about the perspective of ordinary people on all of this? A recent discussion group on advertising sparked an interesting tension. Participants were happily critiquing the recent McDonald’s ‘bereavement’ ad, when one man suddenly said: “Did you know about Ronald McDonald house? My nephew had to be air-lifted to Bristol, and the hospital put his parents up for three months, providing them with meal and drink tokens, all of it funded by the little 2ps that you throw in when you leave McDonald’s.”

Conflicting feelings

Cue a thoughtful pause in the discussion, as people contemplated their conflicting feelings about McDonald’s.

There are a few clear principles that give clues as to when a brand can land a social purpose message successfully and when it can’t. As the McDonald’s example shows, brands which actively demonstrate social interest beyond a purely commercial agenda are welcomed.

Equally Barclays’ LifeSkills has gained traction. TOMS shoes is another excellent example, where the social purpose was embedded from the start. But this isn’t in the gift of all brands, and there are clear watch outs — gratuitous use of provocation is easily spotted.

It’s an age of vocal online hyper-sensitivity around a huge array of topics. The media routinely characterises people as falling into opposing ideological camps, reechoed through social media. Nuance doesn’t gain traction in the Twittersphere, and so the world is presented to us in 2017 as a black and white one. It’s increasingly feeling like a twitchy, spiky world, full of grievances, fractious disagreement and little compassion.

As Brené Brown writes in her recent book, Braving the Wilderness, the world in 2017 often feels like ‘a political and ideological combat zone’. So much of what people read and see almost anywhere these days seems designed to provoke, disrupt or confront. And there’s rising concern about the impact of this is on our collective psyche (cf. Alain de Botton’s recent work, The News, A User’s Manual).

And yet, as any qualitative researcher knows, the angry online world of vocal opinion mellows somewhat in the face-toface environment. Up close, it’s harder to be provocative than it is online.

Brand dichotomy

People are more reasonable, and more readily explore their differences. It poses the question: are people really as worked up and angry as we are being told by vocal lobbyists online? And, faced with this, what are brands to do? Join in the argy-bargy? Seek to soothe the troubled waters? Or, should they avoid social issues entirely and focus on sales?

Take the recent Jigsaw campaign around immigration. It has firmly placed itself in the pro-immigration camp, provocatively embracing the politically loaded word ‘immigration’ itself.

It opts for this over talking about themes of diversity, collaboration or creativity, which arise from immigration. On the surface, it’s a laudable message, with the campaign certain to attract attention.

Division lines

Yet its defiant tonality seems to speak more to division than harmony, another reminder of the drawn lines which separate rather than unite people. It claims to be pro-unity, yet its stance knowingly provokes the opposite, thus risking coming across as disingenuous.

In contrast, earlier this year Heineken adopted a strategy of focusing on the commonality which strengthens. Its ad posits that, whatever your point of view, there is more which unites than separates us. Up close and personal, humanity prevails over prejudice. This speaks to a real need in our society today, again something Brené Brown comments on:

“We seem to have forgotten that even when we’re utterly alone, we are connected to one other through something greater than group membership, politics or ideology.”

Heineken’s message has been warmly received by many, precisely because it’s not trying to be provocative. So if brands are going to venture into social purpose advertising, surely the way to achieve cutthrough is to have something unifying, funny and warm to say as an antidote to the righteous posturing we are fed online? Does this not make more sense than joining in with the tonality of division and provocation?

In our research, we see again and again the delight and sense of connection that brands deliver through humour or making a wry, witty observation about the quirky world we live in. Lately, it seems the most gratefully received ads are those which remind us of our humanity or simply make us smile, in among the depressing headlines and angry commentary of daily life.

Of course, we might reasonably ask whether brands should even venture into the pressing ideological issues of the day. As an excellent recent article by Nick Asbury of brand consultancy Asbury & Asbury, points out:

“When brands mix social issues with a sales message, it looks crass and cheap, because it is. As soon as you turn it into an ad, the real and true thing becomes a crass and insensitive thing. Because making something an ad changes what it is. Attaching a sales message to something changes what it is.”

This is not to decry brands doing good works, but does shouting about your good works somehow devalue them? In 1734, Alexander Pope said “Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame”. Granted, branding your offer ‘Ronald McDonald House’ will proclaim your good works, but perhaps it’s more palatable when the benefits are being experienced on the ground. Whereas when social concerns are weaved into a commercial message, there’s always going to be a risk of perceived inauthenticity, especially if the ad is not felt to bring something positive to the party.

Tapping into the zeitgeist is something that advertising has always done. Brands need to be current and relevant to the wider world, and having a point of view on wider culture is how they make themselves feel relevant to our lives. But in an age where opinions are a more divisive force than ever before, perhaps true relevance and cutthrough comes from offering hope about our humanity, rather than provocation?

What does this all mean for the world of research?

Firstly, as researchers, we need to be aware of the difference between the world of online opinion and the reality of people’s worlds. Equally we must be sensitive to the impact of one on the other. As people feel increasing pressure to conform to certain ideologies and fear the retaliation of stepping outside those boundaries, isn’t there a real risk that we all end up playing out false opinions in the public domain? If we’re constantly being told we should have strong opinions about things we don’t necessarily feel strongly about, we will feel compelled to conform in a group situation because, ultimately, we are social animals, programmed to avoid conflict.

The research industry is duty bound to find ways for real perspectives to find a voice. It must also recognise when polarised opinion is something to sit up and take note of, and when it isn’t. And we need to look at our own biases, too. Are we allowing people to really tell us their truths, or are we inadvertently cueing them to tell us what they think we want to hear for the sake of impactful advertising?

In this culture of strong opinion, in Nate Silver’s words, we need to be able to separate the signal from the noise.