Last year, Nike released a high profile advertising campaign featuring ex-NFL star Colin Kaepernick. While there was naturally a great deal of controversy surrounding the platform Nike gave Kaepernick, another issue arose addressing the ethics involved in using social causes as marketing ploys. Nike’s primary target demographic consists of people from Generations Y and Z, neither of which are known for their conservative stances on social issues. In the aftermath of the advertisement, Nike’s brand was strengthened on all fronts including sales, stock value and publicity.
When companies like Nike and Dove create ads about social causes, questions arise regarding whether or not it is acceptable to use issues as serious as sexism or racism for profit. This is a valid concern. Unfortunately, it is also almost impossible to address from a pragmatic standpoint. Consumers must accept the motivations for these ads at face value because there is no way to prove otherwise. However, this may not necessarily be a bad thing.
An example of this is Brawny Paper Towels’ 2017 rebranding of the iconic lumberjack. The company replaced the mascot with real women in their advertisements going forward and started the hashtag #strengthhasnogender.
While Brawny did make a nominal donation to a foundation supporting women in STEM, one of the creative officers described revamping the packaging as “the biggest, most courageous piece of (the rebranding).” Although the brand’s understanding of courage may have been dubious, the fact that a corporation made this marketing decision is, in and of itself, progress.
While in an ideal world companies would be entirely sincere in their marketing, this does not mean that these ads are not doing any good. When I first began researching this issue, I fully opposed the notion of corporations attaching themselves to a cause by way of advertising. I believed it was disingenuous and disrespectful to those who have sacrificed a great deal in the name of social change.
However, as I found myself knee-deep in commercials clearly marketed towards women, I began to change my mind. Although I maintained my skepticism about the motives of these companies, I began to enjoy a representation I’d never before experienced in spite of myself. In a way it was quite remarkable. Traditionally male-focused companies like Dodge were producing content dedicated to making women feel empowered and visible. Ultimately, this is a step in the right direction no matter the grounds.
Even assuming they are only in it for profit, companies have realized that it is lucrative to throw themselves behind social change, and this proves that social justice movements are gaining traction. While the support from the corporations may be grounded in a financial bottom line, the very fact that they lend their voices to social causes shows that society has come a long way from the days of underrepresentation in advertising.
Importantly, the messages women and girls see about themselves in media are changing. It could be more productive to accept these mindsets in advertising as the new normal rather than question if the motivation is acceptable. Representation is, and will continue to be, important regardless of the motives of those who provide it.