We’re approaching the end of the year and the time for roundups is upon us. Instead of looking at the most successful advertising campaigns of the past year, we’re going to take a slightly different approach. We’ll assess the power of tackling socio-political issues as a marketing technique and analyse how brands have used this tactic during the past twelve months.
Ads have been getting increasingly political over the years as marketers aim, with ever greater obstinacy, to figure out how trending social justice issues can be leveraged to increase the success of their PR campaigns.
In what follows, we’ll dive deep into the best cause marketing campaigns of 2019.
Nike 'Dream' Ads
Earlier this year, Nike gradually released a series of ads which fed into the broader cultural dialogue around women’s empowerment. Nike naturally focused on women in sport and invited viewers to dream of a world in which women have the same opportunities in various sports as their male counterparts.
The ads play on a lot the of deep-seated beliefs of the current feminist movement; and especially on the more recent prejudices and expectations created by the now uber-famous #MeToo crusade.
It is narrated by Serena Williams, who famously tried (with moderate success even) to defend her outrageous outburst against 2018 US Open final umpire Carlos Ramos by turning it into a gender equality issue. After being penalised (rightly so according to the current rules) with a point and later a whole game, Serena doubled down instead of being apologetic, defending her right to abuse officials for applying the rules. She said: “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff.” Apparently fighting for women’s issues should grant you a pass when it comes to abusing umpires in front of millions of girls and young women watching on TV.
Nike brilliantly taps into the controversy, with at least as much cunning as Williams attempted to mask her shortcomings on the Flashing Meadows centre court. The ad, which came out only a few months after the women’s final dispute, aims to redefine the label ‘crazy’, which is often applied negatively to women in sport. One of the more potent lines is “When we stand for something, we’re unhinged” – a clear allusion to what the multiple grand-slam winner thought of the umpire’s decisions and of the backlash her behaviour caused.
Of course the fact that Nike doesn’t support female athletes who choose to become mothers couldn’t be a more powerful metaphor for the sports brand's use of the feminist agenda for their own gain. Both the sportswear company and the athlete employ current issues for their own benefit: Williams in an effort to explain her shock loss and Nike in an attempt to drive sales and raise notoriety. The only difference is that Nike was more successful.
While the female tennis player had her supporters, the success of Nike’s campaign was far greater.
The most popular video in this series generated 10,558,022 views and 93,000 likes on YouTube. It has amassed an impressive 193,000 retweets and 450,000 likes since it was first posted on Nike’s official Twitter account in February this year.
The second most viewed advertisement clip, also narrated by Williams, asks a series of rhetorical questions to the current generation of young sportswomen. One of them is “Can you be the generation that ends gender inequality?”. It boasts almost 6 million plays on YouTube.
Nike masterfully uses two short videos in order to generate amplified coverage for months on end. This is done by tapping into an issue which is already a sure-fire success in terms of generating buzz. The ad is not augmented by anything Nike does after it is published; it is boosted by the organic conversation it is sure to generate – making Nike’s Dream Crazier one of the best marketing campaigns of 2019 when it comes to using social justice issues as a way of enhancing coverage.
'The Best Man Can Be' Gillette Ad
Early on in 2019, Gillette also attempted to use the buzz around the #MeToo movement in order to boost their campaign’s coverage.
The video opens with a series of toxic masculine behaviour displays such as a woman being mansplained to in a work setting, or two boys fighting each other while older men look on without stopping them.
We then see a row of males who each repeats the phrase ‘Boys will be boys’. This is followed by a black screen gradually being filled by more and more news reports popping up which detail sexual allegations being put forward by women against men, the narrator remarks: “Something has changed. And there will be no going back.”
What has changed is of course the ability of men to go unchecked when it comes to sexual abuse as well as the way in which other forms of toxic masculinity in boys are perceived.
Why? Gillette quickly provides the answer: “Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow”.
A brilliant ad in its own right, Gillette’s commercial didn’t benefit from the overwhelmingly positive reaction which Nike’s Dream Crazier did. However, the old saying still rings true: all publicity is good publicity – and Gillette’s ad generated quite the buzz on social media.
The original twitter post now has 229,000 retweets and 567,00 likes. The video had generated no less than 4 million views on YouTube within 48 hours of being posted; it now has more than 32 million.
What should be noted is that Gillette isn’t the type of company which usually takes a stand on political issues in its commercials. The fact that they received some backlash for it points to the fact that people need easing into these sorts of things. Nike has been adopting this strategy for years now, Gillette has just made its first attempt. Was this backlash justified? Should Nike have been faced with a similar reaction? The jury is still out, but this whole conversation ties in neatly with one of our previous posts which analysed the use of gay pride as a marketing campaign.
However, even if Gillette’s Facebook page as well as the comment section of their Twitter post briefly became an ideological battleground following the ad being published, the reach generated by this single video was immense. I mean, we’re still talking about it now, aren’t we?
What makes this one of the best cause marketing campaigns of 2019 is the way in which Gillette adapts its “The Best a Man Can Get” slogan to a current issue as popular and divisive as the #MeToo movement. Like Nike, Gillette uses the notoriety of the movement and the endless discussion it seems to generate in order to become a talking point in their own right. They attempt to place themselves at the centre of the issue; the brand, which has never had any such political ambitions before, now positions itself at the forefront of a movement it has very little to do with - and it works like a charm!
Gillette Venus Ad
Gillette tried their luck at cause marketing again a few months later. Mixed reactions followed their attempt to promote more inclusive body images for women as well.
The Gillette Venus photo ad featured a plus sized model, and this again managed to spark a debate between those in favour of popularising a wider variety of body sizes and those opposing the policy.
Many were quick to condemn Gillette for promoting obesity and unhealthy living habits.
Others took to Twitter to defend Gillette as well as the model in the ad.
Of course, what this all translated to was more engagement and mentions for the brand on Twitter and in the wider media landscape.
Soon enough the story was picked up by media outlets as well. What makes this one of the top marketing campaigns of 2019 is the way in which it uses a divisive issue (in this case whether or not promoting a wider variety of body types is positive or negative) in order to increase reach with a minimum of effort and investment. It shows that when it comes to cause marketing, you don’t need to spend many resources in order to be successful – you just need to latch onto the right issue at the right time, and do so in a way which invites your audience to chip in. In the age of social media people hardly need an express invitation to voice their opinions anyway.
Nike's Kaepernick - Betsy Ross Sneaker Manoeuvre
When compiling a list of the best cause marketing campaigns of 2019, perhaps a marketing ploy which never actually consisted of any sort of targeted promotional material would be seen as an odd choice. However, Nike’s release and subsequent call back of their new Air Max 1 USA sneakers this July was too good an example of what we’ve been talking about to pass up on.
After having already sent the sneakers to various retailers, Nike said it reached the decision to pull these off the market after a supposed intervention by former NFL quarterback turned Nike brand ambassador Colin Kaepernick. The ex-QB complained that the flag was a symbol which had recently been associated with extremist and pro-slavery movements.
The simple fact that Nike’s sales and share price both went up in the immediate aftermath of this well thought out stunt makes it worth a mention. Nike’s share price went up by 2%, or roughly $3 billion.
The controversy was picked up by all major news channels and dissected ad-nauseum, not least because of the conservative backlash it spurred in the US. Many high profile right-leaning politicians were quick to condemn Nike; Arizona’s Republican governor Doug Darcey even pulled a state grant meant to help build a $185 million Nike Air plant in a Phoenix suburb – this just days after it had been announced that 500 new jobs would be created following the plant’s inauguration.
We’ve talked elsewhere about the power of bad publicity in the context of negative press as an effective SEO strategy. Nike used both the power of bad publicity and the already tried-and-tested strategy of tapping into divisive political issues in order to turn what would have just been a minor story into a national debate. Of course, the debate was only in part about Nike and its sneakers; it went much deeper than that, but the brand always remained at the forefront as the instigator of this particular round.
It received bad publicity from conservative corners, who condemned the move as unpatriotic saying it was not clear that the flag had been co-opted by extremist groups; even if it had, goes the argument, the Betsy Ross banner was first and foremost the nation’s initial flag.
This triggered a reaction from those with more liberal sensibilities, creating the perfect storm for Nike yet again. A whirlpool of debates and conversations which would spark more discussions and more arguments, leading to the desired result: increased exposure and additional value generated for the brand in the long run.
Where do brands go from here?
It would seem that marketers are right to be focusing increasingly more on cause marketing. If not for any other reason than its clear-cut effectiveness.
Using the power of a politically divisive issue in order to put your brand at the forefront of a viral debate is something which can generate huge reach for your company without the need for much investment.
With more and more brands coming out with cause marketing campaigns, audiences will begin to expect companies to take a stand on divisive issues. It’s still unclear however whether or not taking the more popular stand actually matters or not – for now it seems that companies engaging in this type of marketing have much to gain regardless of the side they choose.