Advertising and enlightened self interest 

Why brands have real power to effect change in the world

This article was taken from issue 68 of Contagious Magazine, which is out now. You can purchase an annual subscription (4 issues) of Contagious Magazine here

A few weeks ago, I made a chief creative officer at a major agency cry. Well, to be more specific, it’s rather that while I was interviewing him about his agency’s award-winning work, he was moved to tears thinking about the positive difference the campaign could make in people’s lives. I found the reaction incredibly touching and it’s a reminder that although sometimes an advertiser’s job is to simply sell more stuff, they also have real power to effect change in the world.

In our round-up of this year’s Cannes Lions Festival, Becca Peel examines how, when it came to addressing social issues, the big award winners moved beyond raising awareness and instead tackled problems around inclusion head on. She details, for example, how Starbucks in Brazil turned its flagship coffee shop into a notary office to help trans people legally change their names. This is an incredible feat for a brand in a country where the president is a proud homophobe.

And, take Mastercard, which now allows people to put their name of choice on their credit or debit cards. A small gesture for the company, but for the trans and non-binary people it helps, who no longer have to fear being outed by a piece of plastic, it’s huge. It matters when big companies publicly stand up for disadvantaged minorities or vulnerable communities, because it encourages further support from other key players. 

When we interviewed Reed Collins, CCO at Ogilvy Asia and president of the Cannes Direct Lions jury, he described Cannes as ‘the festival of philanthropy’, arguing that campaigns that cover topics like sustainability, gender inequality or race always perform better because jurors don’t want to be perceived as jerks among their peers for voting down this type of work. But these campaigns aren’t just pulling on heartstrings, they can have a business impact. 

This comes through in our Mastercard Brand Spotlight, Phoebe O’Connell highlights how campaigns like True Name are part of the global payment company’s drive towards greater financial inclusion for all; it’s a business strategy but also a way to increase consumer preference. 

So this isn’t pure altruism, it’s enlightened self-interest, or as Mastercard puts it ‘doing well, by doing good’. 

Not all marketing is designed to solve problems but it has incredible power to shape beliefs, provoke thinking and incite change. As Vicki Maguire, CCO at Havas London and president of the Cannes Lions Brand Experience & Activation category, told us: ‘Industry and brands will change culture quicker than governments and legislation.’

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