The renaissance of relevance

The days of ads gently stroking consumers' social consciousness are coming to an end, predicts One's Karen Howe.

realthingThis story appears in the September 2015 issue of strategy.

By Karen Howe

I predict that the next big thing in advertising will be…real advertising. The kind of advertising that actually involves the brand and a benefit related to its product.

In the future, we can expect to see ideas that will showcase a product or service that fulfills a need instead of gently stroking our social consciousness and hoping we’ll open our wallet while in a state of somnolence.

We’ve been down the rabbit hole of borrowed interest for a long time. It’s time to climb out.

Coke sowed the seeds. In the ’70s it put a bunch of people on a hill, had them hold hands and sing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing (in perfect harmony.)” By 2013 it conferred its quest for world peace upon vending machines situated in India and Pakistan, encouraging the people at either end, who could see each other via a screen, to touch hands and form a peace sign together.

Benetton picked up the social cause baton in earnest in 1990 when it launched a campaign featuring an unflinching portrait of AIDS victim and activist David Kirby on his deathbed, surrounded by his family. There was nary a whisper about Benetton’s clothing line. It created a firestorm. Was this borrowed interest, naked opportunism or a brand that stood for more than a sales receipt? Over the decades, Benetton has gone on to provide commentary on racism, politics, interracial marriage, religion, birth control and LGBT rights. Where it stands on pleated pants or patch pockets, I couldn’t tell you.

To this day, the spate of collective social consciousness continues to be raised via Cannes and Madison Avenue-constructed activations rather than by students on campuses or demonstrations at Queen’s Park.

This year we saw Always tackle sexism with its “#LikeAGirl” campaign. It was handsomely awarded with many Gold Lions.

Dove has been firmly attached to the coattails of borrowed interest for years. The brand has created a whole new industry preying on female insecurity. It kicked it off with “Evolution,” where it questioned society’s version of beauty. Dove’s oeuvre includes “Real Beauty Sketches” (women being afraid to describe themselves as beautiful to an artist who was drawing them). Then there was “Choose Beautiful” (women afraid to walk through a door that described them as such). And of course, “Patches,” where woman were taught they didn’t need a fictional patch to make them beautiful because they already were.

The face soap itself has barely entered into the equation for years.

Cheerios has come out with the idea of “We all love to connect.” It is now the champion of unexpected relationships versus the breakfast of champions. The cereal now fosters unconventional pairings versus fuelling you up for the day.

Honey Maid’s “This is Wholesome” campaign celebrated all kinds of families. It included printed and rolled up anti-campaign comments to spell the word “love.” Not much about the biscuits.

Nature Valley’s new campaign is busy shining a light on the fact that kids today are tethered to a screen instead of running through a field. This brand wants us to get our kids out to play and to experience nature.

There are studies that have shown that some consumers, and of particular note, that henpecked strata known as “millennials,” identify with brands that mirror their social values. But do they buy them? Literally?

Social consciousness as a brand platform is now, overwhelmingly, the advertising tool of choice. It’s the not-so-new normal. Some would say cliché. When Benetton came out of the gate it fuelled accusations of heartless opportunism. These days it would be de rigueur.

Okay, so if that’s now, what’s the future?

I think we will see the renaissance of relevance. We will start to produce creative centred on ideas that actually have something to do with the product.

It’s brave, but it is coming. Brands will find the courage to start standing on their own two feet again instead of dithering in the morass of social cause.

Agencies and advertisers will stand shoulder-to-shoulder and fearlessly expound real reasons to invite a product into your life.

Matt Biespiel, the senior director of global brand development for McDonald’s, spoke at Cannes this year, and I think he said it best: “Advertising is not a four-letter word.”

Amen, brother.

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Karen Howe is SVP/CD at One Advertising