In a Busy Year for Socially Conscious Advertising, Does It Actually Work?

Woman shopping and wearing a mask.


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Key Takeaways

  • Companies perceived as socially and environmentally conscious score higher with brand recognition, customer loyalty, employee retention, and motivation.
  • Brands need to develop clear messages that are specific and that address the social context and issues relevant to their customers.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, as well as the social distancing orders in place at many locations around the world due to COVID-19, the question has to be asked: What are businesses to do with their advertising?

Do they continue as though nothing is happening in the world, jump on the bandwagon of socially conscious advertising and media messages, or do something in between?

These are transient passing concerns that will leave us once the current focus on social issues wanes. Rather, socially conscious advertising has always been a part of business; or at least, for businesses that have been paying attention.

What This Means For You

Social issues related to civil rights, animal rights, the LGBTQ community, the environment, and more have long been in the spotlight. Not only that, but businesses that have taken initiatives to incorporate socially conscious advertising have the chance to influence customers as well as change views on a larger scale. And as customers, we have the ability to provide direct positive feedback to companies that face these issues head-on.

At no time in history has this been more relevant than now; we've been inundated with these types of ads in 2020. Home for months in front of the TV with fewer things to do, you have probably rolled your eyes once or twice at soda companies or car dealerships insisting that they are here for you. Still, the question remains: How are we influenced, and how should businesses approach this kind of advertising?

Does Socially Conscious Advertising Affect Buying Behavior?

Shel Horowitz, profitability and marketing consultant and award-winning author of 10 books, including "Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World," argues that socially conscious advertising has always mattered in buying behavior.

Shel Horowitz, marketing consultant

Study after study has shown that companies perceived as socially and environmentally conscious score higher with brand recognition, customer loyalty, employee retention, and motivation.

— Shel Horowitz, marketing consultant

Horowitz explains that over 40% of customers make purchasing decisions based on their perception of a brand's social responsibility. He adds that this number has likely increased due to recent events.

This suggests businesses not employing socially conscious advertising are missing out on influencing buying behavior, as well as attracting loyal customers and employees.

Tom De Spiegelaere, a digital entrepreneur, agrees. "Ads that invoke a feeling of togetherness or those that make people feel like they're part of something perform exceptionally well," he says.

Can It Bring Change on a Larger Scale?

It's clear that we are being swayed with respect to our purchases. But can companies really change the world? In fact, there are numerous examples of how socially conscious advertising has affected change on a larger scale than simply buying behavior.

Horowitz cites examples such as Dove's campaign around body image for women and girls, the Body Shop's campaigns around animal testing and indigenous rights, and Beyond Meat's campaign to promote vegan alternatives. "Think of Prius and the hybrid/electric vehicle movement it spawned," says Horowitz.

De Spiegelaere also argues that brands also have the capability to change beliefs and whole cultures tangentially related to business. "One of the positive changes brought about by socially conscious advertising is the widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community."

Pros and Cons of Socially Conscious Advertising

Not all businesses have taken up socially conscious advertising with fervor. Is this conservative position helping or hurting the companies that adopt it?

Benefits of Socially Conscious Advertising

The main benefits of socially conscious advertising include brand recognition, customer loyalty, employee retention, and social change. In addition, Horowitz argues that brands using socially conscious advertising have "the satisfaction of knowing they have created a product that's good for the world and its inhabitants."

Not only that, but this type of advertising can make a brand stand out and send a strong message to customers. "Socially conscious advertising is a main part of brand messaging," says De Spiegelaere.

Pitfalls of Socially Conscious Advertising

Pitfalls of socially conscious advertising usually relate to getting things wrong. This means that companies that want to do this the right way need to pay attention to the mistakes they might be making. According to De Spiegelaere, the main pitfall is creating socially conscious advertising that is too generic.

Tom De Spiegelaere

Being too general can backfire. Your message has to be specific and strong enough to elicit whatever reaction you're trying to achieve.

— Tom De Spiegelaere

Another potential pitfall is greenwashing, says Horowitz. "Making green or social responsibility claims that aren't true… will come back to bite the perpetrators, as it did for BP post-Deepwater Horizon, the nuclear power industry, and many others."

Is This Kind of Advertising Helping Right Now?

De Spiegelaere argues that socially conscious advertising has a major role to play moving forward. "Socially conscious ads will remain an important part of advertising. This is because it's one of the best tools for engagement and because it sheds light on important issues as well."

Horowitz also believes that customers are far from over it when it comes to socially conscious advertising. "We see just in the past couple of weeks an outpouring of social consciousness in the streets (and in business messaging)," he says.

"It was unthinkable even a week ago that a major city like Minneapolis would vote to disband its police force," Horowitz adds. "It was shocking to people who had not gotten involved until now when the White House had a plaza full of peaceful demonstrators cleared so [the president] could stand with a Bible in front of a church he doesn't generally attend, and those folks are looking for actions to take and brands to support or boycott."

What are businesses to do in an age of socially conscious advertising? If there are any takeaways at the moment, it's that brands need to develop clear messages that are specific and that address the social context and issues relevant to their customers. And for us viewers and customers, it's important to continue holding brands responsible for values that we hold dear, even if it means switching toilet paper brands once in a while.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."