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The Murky Waters of Socially Conscious Advertising

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It’s 2017, the access to information is at an all-time high and the young adults of today seem more into politics and social justice than they’ve ever been. Some advertisers, (two of which will be discussed) are trying to capitalize on the recent social justice phenomenon.

social-justice-political-advertising-small-businessA tale of two ads

By viewing the two videos below, you’ll bear witness to one unmitigated disaster (The Pepsi ad), and one rousing success (The Heineken ad) in regards to navigating today’s climate.

Pepsi’s blunder

Where did Pepsi fail?

There’s enough answers to fill an encyclopedia, so let’s focus on a couple of key aspects in this viral video version of the Hindenburg.

Pepsi attempted to represent oppressed, poor, intersectional youths, and instead a) produced an ad with a budget that likely could have solved the Economic Crisis and b) featured Kendall Jenner- a socialite whose claim to fame is being afforded every advantage the target demographic feels they do not have. You could waste your time waxing political- but when it comes to not understanding your target, the Pepsi ad nails it. In an attempt to seem on-trend and authentic, everyone’s favourite 2nd best soda, came up with something as cool and authentic as your dad trying to employ the term “YOLO” into his daily vernacular.

Heineken’s triumph

Simplicity and authenticity are the keys to the Heineken ad (titled “Worlds Apart”). Was it actually real? According to Heineken, they didn’t hire actors- but whether they hired actors or not, it seemed real and perception is everything in advertising. Only six people were featured in a four-and-a-half-minute viral video, with specific, compelling, and relatable stories the viewer can sink their teeth into.

The ad plays off of the undeniable insight of two fundamentally opposing people finding middle ground by listening to one another over a beer.

Compare and Contrast

Pepsi does everything in their power to ensure their ad is wholly impersonal, with a music track playing over generically over dramatic stereotypical depictions of culturally diverse peoples. You know nothing of anyone. They are all just “there”, doing stuff. Oh, and there’s a protest for some reason. The product is the star (an advertising no-no in this kind of video)- clumsily shoehorned into the role of conquering hero and savior, along with the vapid Kendall Jenner. Such a lack of self-awareness, coupled with self-importance leads to bad advertising, and hilarious parodies.

Heineken’s spot is completely personal, as they play off of the specifics of each individual. The beer plays a background character, while the human interaction surrounding the beverage plays the star. Though, they haven’t exactly steered clear of some great parodies themselves.

Fully commit to what you’re doing

By also donating money to a not-for-profit organization that challenges stereotypes through conversation, called the Human Library, Heineken completed their full immersion into their socially conscious image. It wasn’t enough to make a compelling television spot, but they had to fully commit and actually be socially conscious. Or –if you’re more cynical- simply create the illusion of being socially conscious.

If the Pepsi ad wanted to seem “down with the movement”, they could have taken the millions spent on their grand scale abomination, and donated it to a similar not-for-profit, as Heineken did. At the very least, it would have done more for the brand’s public perception.

The truth is, neither the taste of a fizzy soda, nor a cold refreshing beer have anything to do with the socio-political landscape. They are both attempting to profiteer off of very sensitive issues. Heineken benefits from executing better because a) they tell a better story and, most importantly, b) Pepsi did their ad with in-house copywriters, while Heineken hired Publicis, a renowned ad agency.

It’s a general principle to avoid political advertising when it comes to your brand. However, if you feel so compelled to do it, be like Heineken and not like Pepsi.

Can small businesses take these kinds of risks?

Pepsi may have blundered, but they have the money to rebound in short order.

However, being socially conscious while marketing your own small business is its own tight rope walk. While you don’t have the infinite stream of Pepsi and Heineken dollars, you can still learn from the two branding giants.

Big or small, businesses need to cater their advertising to their target. If your hypothetical plumbing business were to post articles for OR against Donald Trump on Facebook, as a means to stand out, this would be an absolutely awful idea.  While you would make noise, you would also alienate potential clientele. A plumbing business’s target isn’t people’s political affiliations, it’s people with plumbing emergencies. Although you might be abiding by your principles, you are ignoring advertising principles and potentially hurting your business.

On the other hand, it would be a fine socially-conscious effort for your hypothetical plumbing company to sponsor and pay for the jerseys & equipment of a Pee-Wee hockey team in an under privileged neighbourhood. Your company will not only be visible on hockey jerseys, but the good PR generated by a local business funding a hockey program in a less privileged community is worth the expense. There’s nothing better for a local company than becoming a pillar of a community and helping it grow. It keeps you in everybody’s consciousness!

In these socially conscious times, even though you should never try to solve the world’s problems with your advertising, you can still do some good. There is no need to rock the boat, or flip it upside down.


Remember how Pepsi’s disastrous ad was done by in house creatives, while Heineken’s viral sensation was done by an ad agency? Don’t let yourself fall into the same trap!

Eden’s marketing team can help you come up with the right marketing strategy, along with the optimal web or online marketing solutions to reach your goals.

To learn more about what we can do for you, contact us today!

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