Advertising as a Force for Social Justice

It’s quite clear to me that advertising often contributes to social injustice. Ads can glamorize bad behavior and perpetuate really harmful cultural norms that ought to be changing, but are difficult to change in part because of the weight of advertising that we see. Think about most beer ads and Carl’s Jr. Go through most women’s fashion and beauty magazines reading the messages about what it takes to be beautiful and fit and desirable.

I don’t think advertising creates the issues, but because those who create and approve advertising live in the culture, they sometimes fail to see the harm in their messages. I still vividly recall having to speak up in an agency creative presentation in the early 1980s to object to an ad scene where the cat crawls down a woman’s top (for some reason I forget.) None of the guys in the room saw anything objectionable about it – it was funny, darn it. With a knot in my stomach, I decided to speak up and say that no, it wasn’t funny, and in fact it was demeaning to women. And it was not necessary to communicate the message, so could we please not do that? The guys were still a bit mystified, but acquiesced.

There have been quite a few ads and campaigns, even for mainstream brands, that have struck a blow for social justice, civil and human rights. Back in 1971, Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” had a rather profound impact. And yes, it was also self-serving.

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign made lots of us feel better about ourselves as women, and about Dove.

And now, P&G’s Always has hit a home run with “Like a Girl.” It’s great advertising in part because it starts from a truth – we live in a society where doing things “like a girl” is an insult. Which makes it difficult to be a girl, or a woman, and not to feel that you’re somehow ‘less than.’ It makes its point in an engaging way, without hitting you over the head with it. And I know that approach will do more to get people thinking and to re-consider their language and their attitudes than preaching will.

So, yes, I think advertising can be a force for social justice. I wish more advertisers would be more progressive and stop perpetuating those cultural tropes that are harmful. And I will continue to support those brands and companies that, in the course of selling product and making money, also take a stand for social justice.

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