Authenticity and Bulls**t in the Age of #Causemarketing

I would like to posit that there is an interesting confluence of opposing events occuring:

  1. Our collective assessment of the world is rapidly approaching dumpster fire status.
  2. Driven by a sense of rampant futility (see #1), people are seeking out areas and experiences where something good is actually happening.

It’s clear that marketers are starting to recognize this trend as they try to attach their brands to larger social missions. The flurry of feel-good commercials that ran in the most recent Super Bowl (a fairly accurate example of where we are at any given cultural moment) is a helpful case study. We’ve come a long way from scantily-clad, B-list celebrities scarfing down burgers and telephone calls composed of a single, drawn out salutation, Wasssuuuppp!

And I’m not complaining. Right now, there is an opportunity to attach genuinely productive movements to brands with a large platform—precisely because that’s what the people want. However, at a time where there has never been more media readily available, or a more sophisticated audience to consume it, companies are trying to get their footing in this brave new world of #causemarketing… and finding a few pitfalls along the way.

The most apparent stumble from the 2018 Super Bowl was decidedly Dodge Ram’s “Built to Serve” spot. Running audio from Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon over visuals of teachers, mothers, rescue workers, and service men interspersed with action shots of the truck itself, the ad attempted to link the Dodge Ram brand with a nebulous sense of community service. The public backlash was swift and fierce. Particularly on social media, viewers did not take kindly to coopting Reverend King’s legacy in the name of selling trucks.

Let’s counter this with Anheuser Busch’s offering: “Stand By You” details Budweiser’s 30-year legacy of providing 79 million cans of drinking water to disaster affected areas. Presented through the lens of one of its employees over an acoustic cover of “Stand By Me,” this 60-second sport will literally give you chills.

So what made us feel so warm with pride as we nursed our Bud Light during the fourth quarter while Ram’s message of community service clearly rang so hollow? In a word: Authenticity.

Like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography (“I know it when I see it”) this ever-elusive concept of authenticity is immediately recognizable to today’s sophisticated consumer based. We as an audience are perfectly aware how easy it is to construct a tear-jerking commercial with the veneer of social progress without any material investment in the cause. Meanwhile, at a historical moment where any iota of real progress is hard to come by, it’s hard not to feel deceived when companies try to lay claim to causes they have no track record of supporting. From this perspective, it makes sense our common BS detector has evolved to skewer companies pursuing unwarranted brownie points in the name of greater market share (Pepsi anyone?).

Internet popularity aside, what’s most important here is the “watering down” of cause marketing represents a real missed opportunity to tie actual social impact to corporate clout. Marketers would do well to take note from the examples above that the easiest way for a brand to cultivate authenticity is to attach itself to an existing cause or organization doing work in the field (see: Stella Artois and Water.org). Sponsored or otherwise, lending a major brand’s platform to meaningful work is significant. In a space where all manner of resources and capital are scarce, a seemingly minimal amount of investment from the private sector can be a game-changer in the non-profit one. For those of us with a vested interest in moving the needle on social progress, we are eager to transform this demand for authenticity in the marketing space into a mechanism for tangible change. Imagine if Dodge used its commercial to inform you the company donated $1 million (only a tenth of the price tag for a 60-second Super Bowl spot by the way) to support veterans and military families. How much more does the phase “Built to Serve” resonate in that context? Personally, it is heartening to see incentives align in such a way as corporations can see the value in social progress. Let’s keep the momentum going.