Advertising for good: does it turn out we all want the same thing?

The Cannes Lions Festival might just be showing us that, contrary to popular belief, public and industry might both want marketing to benefit society, says 101's Ross Farquhar.

It would be a ballsy careers counsellor who, when confronted with a student who seeks a career in an industry that is beyond moral reproach and driven by a desire to make the world a better place, recommends marketing.

Since the publication of Vince Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (in which he famously implied admen were engaged in ‘people-manipulating activities’ that raised ‘profoundly disturbing questions about the kind of society they are seeking to build for us’), public discourse around the profession has been resoundingly wary.

Public trust in advertising tends to float around 1 out of 5, narrowly ahead of the alcohol industry but behind bankers and politicians.

Underpinning that mistrust is a sense of opposing objectives – the public want life to be better, the marketing industry wants to sell more stuff. Rarely does the latter lead to the former.

But this year’s Cannes Lions festival might just be demonstrating that, far from being another species entirely, we marketers might just share that desire to make things better, and increasingly are finding ways to turn commercial objectives into advertising that does just that.

For evidence, I turn to one of the first categories to announce its winners, the Promotional and Activation Lions.

It has always been my favourite category, as to me it represents the sharp end of what Paul Feldwick might call ‘humbug’: advertising that generates its own coverage rather than relying mostly on paid-for media, because ‘if it doesn’t get enough people in the tent, it won’t eat’. It is usually the one that boasts winners that have been genuinely insightful, and that have worked hard to capture the interest of the public on their terms, not the brand’s.

When you look at the class of 2015 in this category, two things emerge:

1. The industry wanted to award Good ideas (with a capital G)

"The Promo & Activation jury will be looking for work that works. But, more importantly, we’ll be looking for work that in some way lifts creativity and, indeed, society to a higher plane. We have to tap into consumer emotions and experiences to solve real problems."
- Matt Eastwood, CCO of JWT Worldwide & Chair of the P&A Jury

It was obvious before the festival even commenced that the jury for this category weren’t just looking for work that made the biggest splash, but rather work that did so in a way that contributed to a more responsible contract with the world in mind. Seeking to award work that lifted ‘society to a higher plane’ is not something one might have expected to hear from a judge a decade or two ago.

It’s a powerful signal to send – the Cannes Lions festival sets the bar for creativity around the world, the standards for the advertising industry to uphold and endeavour to beat. To set those standards not solely on the basis of commercial outcomes or imaginations captured, but also on societal impact, suggests the leaders of the profession have a desire to prove that the public’s suspicion of us is a case of mistaken identity.

2. …and plenty of Good ideas stepped up to the plate

Having gone through all 83 awarded entries in the category, there’s an encouraging pattern.

Firstly, over half (57 per cent) could be classified as in some way ‘doing good’ for the world. Most notably Volvo’s Grand Prix-winning "life paint", which sought to make our roads safer for drivers and cyclists alike. But beyond the very top pedestal we saw Burger King standing up for the right to equality for LGBT people with "Proud Whopper", Vodafone tackling domestic abuse with "between us" and Volskwagen encouraging parents to slow down with "reduce speed dial". Indeed, perhaps most encouraging is that these good-doing winners weren’t just from the usual suspects of charities and lobbying groups – over 40 per cent of all profit-making entrants fell into this grouping.

Secondly, the pattern is even more pronounced at the top end of the scale. Fifteen of the 20 entries awarded either a gold Lion or the Grand Prix demonstrated their idea had a positive impact on society.

Cause-related entrants like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and No Somos Delito’s "holograms for freedom" sat alongside commercial entrants like Samsung’s effort to make overtaking safer (‘Safety Truck’) and Nivea’s fun way of educating kids on the dangers of being in the sun without protection (‘Nivea Doll’). Again, Good ideas were not disproportionately had by non-commercial organisations.

Green shoots that should be encouraged to grow 

It would be foolish to suggest that one category in one awards ceremony should give us cause to believe we’ve found the point where the public’s desire for responsible marketing and our actual practice have met en masse.

But perhaps we might be entering the zone of possible agreement, and one which we should all be endeavouring to pile into more often than we have in the past.

What’s most exciting to me about these winners is that they have managed to deliver on their business objectives and community responsibilities at the same time. They are the trailblazers for whom sustainable business does not mean compensating for physical or cultural pollution with token donations to charity, but rather finding ways to make the discipline most often charged with fuelling commercial growth do so with societal impact as far more than an after thought.

We should celebrate those who are trying – they might just be plotting the path to the new normal.

Ross Farquhar is a partner at 101

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