Take the current “Like a Girl” campaign by women’s hygiene brand Always. The ad powerfully evokes the affect of gender stereotyping on adolescent girls. It ends with a call to show that “doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.” Image Credit: Supplied

Advertising used to be simple. The marketer would take the client’s product, jazz it up as cheap/durable/functional/cool or just generally great, and hit the consumer with their pitch. By dint of humour, style or sheer perseverance, the message would get out and off to the shops we’d go.

Now, it seems, the rules are changing. Advertisers are desperate for us to emote. More than that, they want us to know they care. So it’s out with the obvious sales pitch and in with tear-jerking or heartwarming storytelling around an issue people feel passionate about.

Meaningful marketing

Take the current “Like a Girl” campaign by women’s hygiene brand Always. The ad powerfully evokes the affect of gender stereotyping on adolescent girls. It ends with a call to show that “doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing.”

Always isn’t alone. Verizon recently launched a new advert centred on the cultural prejudices faced by young girls interested in science. Innocent’s “Chain for Good” ad, Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign and Dove’s “Inner Beauty” series all represent what the advertising trade likes to call “meaningful marketing”.

So why the sudden shift? Obviously, it works. Always’ advert has had over 37 million views on YouTube in less than a month. Dove’s latest Real Beauty Sketches ad, meanwhile, has racked up 64 million hits. To get internet users sharing your content online is every advertiser’s dream. Web-based messaging reaches parts TV advertising can’t both in terms of scope and credibility. It’s also a whole lot cheaper.

“Imagine how much more important a brand message is if it’s been shared from you to me rather than me just seeing it on Facebook and emotional content can really help people be inspired to share,” says Sam Barcroft, founder of digital media firm Barcroft Media.

Advertisers prodding their audiences to emote is nothing new. Beer brands have become synonymous with making us laugh. Others, like Benetton, are masters in shocking us. What’s different today is the explicit use of social causes to stir our hearts and activate our tear ducts.

In a world awash with hype and hyperbole, substance sells, argues Barcroft. Look at news sharing website Upworthy, he says: “They basically just curate things that they think are socially important and valuable for people to click through to. It’s a bit of a revolution against cats on skateboards and content that has lack of meaning.”

Two other factors play into the shift towards meaningful marketing, or “sadvertising” as it’s sometimes called. First is technology. In a 30 second TV advert, the quick gag dominates. Touching deeper emotional levels requires a longer format, which the internet caters for perfectly.

Second is a change in the public mood. Attitudes towards business are transforming, says Trish Wheaton, president of Inspire, a new Dallas-based advertising agency owned by ad giant Young Rubicam. Millennials expect their favourite brands to make a difference in the world. And everyone else increasingly agrees. At a more general level, the Western world is undergoing a values revolution, says Wheaton.

Substance, not sainthood

Social branding experts applaud the move. Global corporations, after all, exert a huge influence on how we think. Isn’t it better that an insurance firm like AXA uses that influence to raise awareness about cancer rather than bore on about its premiums?

“Taking a stance on an important issue and making a positive contribution are exactly what a brand should be doing in today’s world,” argues Kate Cox, a managing partner at communications firm Havas Media.

However, underlying this trend towards social good advertising is a desire to cement a brand’s identity and ultimately increase its market share. But consumers aren’t naive about what’s going on, says Cox. “People are happy with the idea of brands aligning themselves with a social issue just as long as they are making a genuine positive contribution,” she says.

The message to brand owners is clear: words must follow actions. Another risk is leaving your consumers confused. For example, Always didn’t champion anti-ageism or gay rights — it addressed female empowerment among adolescent girls, a subject close to the hearts of its target audience.

“The subject has to have some kind of connection to the thing that you make,” says Andre Laurentino, global executive creative director for Unilever at Ogilvy Mather, the advertising group behind Dove’s Inner Beauty campaign.

Thin line

As with Always, the link between women’s self-esteem and the beauty industry fits naturally: “If we were to talk about any other subject that wasn’t related to what we actually do, then it wouldn’t hold you would lack legitimacy,” Laurentino adds.

The lines between meaningful and maudlin, caring and cloying, tender and trite, often run thin. No one likes brands that preach. “There’s too much wishy-washy, do goody stuff out there, where companies try to appear like charities,” says Giles Gibbons, chief executive of the communications firm Good Business. “People don’t buy that.”

Consumers aren’t stupid. At the end of the day, we all know that advertisers exist to sell us stuff. But advertisers know that too. As long as everyone is clear, then brands’ embracing social issues is no bad thing. And if you’re not a fan, then just don’t ‘like’ it.