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Advertising’s Awards Season Ends and Storytelling Gets the Gold

Madison Avenue’s month-long advertising triathlon of live events — the Super Bowl, Olympics and Oscars — brought with it much analysis of the winning and losing spots, many of which pushed issues rather than products. It also coincided with an interesting announcement from MillerCoors. In an effort to turn around the sales slump afflicting its Coors Light brand, the beverage maker said it will be shifting its marketing away from the aspirational “Climb On” programming (that encouraged viewers to overcome personal challenges) back to its roots of “fun”-focused spots celebrating refreshment.

Coors Light is not the only big brand that has cast off weighty mantles in favor of a lighter touch. At this year’s Oscars, GM’s Cadillac defied expectations by scrapping the high-minded unity campaign that earned so much attention in 2017 in favor of a more-traditional product push. Cadillac marketing director Renee Rauchut cited consumer fatigue with “heavy, lofty ads,” as the reason for the shift, leading Ad Age to wonder about whether a backlash has been brewing against the socially conscious programming that has informed some of the highest-profile campaigns in recent years.

But maybe it’s less about backlash and more about brands simply taking a step back and realizing there’s a time and place for earnestness. A 2017 Cone Communications CSR study indicated that 70% of Americans believe companies have an obligation to take action on issues that may or may not be relevant to their everyday businesses. And P&G’s Marc Pritchard has spoken often and passionately about the need for brands to use their advertising voices for the greater good. Coors itself said it wasn’t abandoning “Climb On,” but saving it for more appropriate moments.

And judging by the last month’s ad bonanza, which has given us plenty to study, issues-oriented advertising depends on the right context and great content to strike the right chord. Which is the same as it ever was in the advertising world. Here’s our takeaway on the status of socially conscious ads.

Combine Meaning with Mission
What Cadillac kept on the downlow last year was the fact that there were no new products to shout about. So a message encouraging viewers to “Dare Greatly” worked well as an issue-oriented campaign for the brand. This year was a different story given the launch of the XT4 compact. The move underscores the importance of calibrating message to mission. Like Toyota did with this year’s crop of Olympics ads that not only promoted an equality message but also announced Toyota’s shift from an automotive company to mobility enabler. Its Olympics ad celebrating the successes of Paralympians overcoming mobility challenges worked not just because it tugged on heartstrings (it did) but also because it felt authentic. Which leads to the next point.

Authenticity Will Make or Break an Issue-Oriented Campaign
In its Oscars debut, Google’s Nest was widely praised for getting the gold in an ad that gave a nod to the #MeToo movement while simultaneously, tastefully and mission-appropriately, promoting the breadth of its home automation system. “The company’s mission, from day one, has been to create a home that takes care of the people inside it, and the world around it,” said Nest CMO Doug Sweeny. “There’s this conversation happening between men and women, started by the #MeToo movement…we wanted to insert Nest into the conversation authentically.” But striking the right balance was a challenge, according to Xanthe Wells, the company’s global creative director last year. “We went preachy a couple times and it felt wrong. We didn’t want it to be heavy-handed.”

Going preachy in a way that rings false or is exploitive is a big risk with socially conscious advertising and a lesson that Twitter and Ram learned the hard way. Twitter’s attempt to capitalize on the female empowerment movement at the Oscars with its #HereWeAre: Standing With Women earned widespread derision from consumers who are well aware that the company has taken little action to protect female Tweeters from online trolls and harassers. Ram struck a similarly false note with its Super Bowl ad that wove snippets of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech into a service-themed ad. As noted in the New York Times article, the company’s intentions were lofty, but the content choice was inappropriate (MLK’s speech actually warned against the dangers of advertising) and insensitive given the emotions around racial division in the country.

As Always, Content and Creativity Win the Campaign
The big winners of the last month’s advertising bonanza are those that got content and context right, regardless of whether they took a stance on an issue of social import. Walmart, for example, debuted three new ads for the Oscars that earned rave reviews. Time magazine even called one of the spots “the best movie of the Oscars.” While the ad series got lumped into the socially conscious category because of the progressive themes of some of the spots (two mommies in the Dee Rees offering) and the fact that all the spots were directed by women, it was the stellar storytelling and creativity rather than the issues that earned the accolades.

And Tide and Amazon stole the Super Bowl with notably humorous ads. In an ingenious bit, Tide lampooned all the advertising clichés on display at big-ticket TV events in a brilliant, feel-good fashion, while Amazon employed some of those conventions (celebrity star power) in touting its Alexa product in a funny spot that was widely praised for “winning the Super Bowl.” Which just goes to show, that good content always shines.