When Sean Penn was on “Inside the Actors Studio,” he was asked how he chooses a film. He was his famously self important but honest self, “The medium is too powerful not to be responsible. I only do material that is illuminating of the human spirit.” Now mind you I had a chuckle when I saw him on Friends a few days later, BUT for years whether I was writing a coupon, or concepting promotions or even coming up with a bigger positioning for a brand, I thought about that. Now we don’t make movies, but what we do come into millions of people’s homes and, if we have done our job, change what they buy, how they feel about it and themselves. We have the power to influence culture and make change, for better or worse. We know this. Some brands have used this power for good, good for themselves and good their consumers. When Virginia Slims aligned itself with the fledgling Women’s Tennis Association in the 70s it helped bring about equal prize money for females athletes and grow the sport. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty brought a needed positive voice and perspective into the conversation about body image.
These examples show that when marketing is at its best, is it radical. It shakes us and forces to look at ourselves differently. One of its first revolutionary acts was on behalf of the cigarette industry. Lucky Strike asked debutantes in the 20s to smoke as a ‘protest’ in an Easter Day parade shifting the perception of cigarettes as unladylike to a tool of female empowerment. So what’s next for brands? What is the radical shift it can bring about for today? It is time to go deeper. To go beyond image to tangible change in consumer’s lives. Pick an ill, hunger, the ever- evaporating middle class, education, the desire to start small businesses. Brands do try, occasionally, to go beyond a heartfelt commercial. Walmart’s policy of offering $4 prescriptions changed people’s lives. The Pepsi Refresh project did allocate millions of dollars toward worthy causes. Starbucks started the conversation of buying American. But we need to do more. What if P&G really lived their brand purpose of being the Proud Sponsor of Moms and joined forces with Maria Shriver to help build programs that helped the 40% of mothers who are in danger of staying or falling into poverty with their families. What if Walmart actually helped change the minimum wage so that their own people didn’t have to go on food stamps to support their families, or create economic environments that supported small businesses in the communities they inhabit, rather than wiping them out. What if McDonald’s sourced all of their produce and meat from farms that use organic and sustainable methods, causing a change effect that forces all farming to change how they do business. What if? I think going to work would be more fun and interesting.