Since 1970, April 22nd has marked a worldwide observance of Earth Day, an annual celebration of our planet’s beauty and value often accompanied by pleas to preserve the environment. But few years’ acknowledgements have included quite the same level of vehement activism as 2017’s, which most notably manifested in the “March for Science” that drew crowds in cities across the United States. This year’s observance of Earth Day made abundantly clear that on today’s contentious global political stage, issues like climate change and funding cuts are capturing the attention of more and more minds – and, in typical fashion, marketers are taking note.
Brief social media shoutouts and mini-campaigns are standard fare for major companies on an average Earth Day, and certainly many companies kept their annual messages simple as such. Ben & Jerry’s, which runs sustainability initiatives year-round, posted simple social media imagery invoking a melting planet-themed ice cream cone to encourage its customers to make environmentally conscious decisions. Apple, meanwhile, released ads stripped of their usually slick style to educate the masses on the company’s earth-friendly offices and sustainability programs.
Some companies, however, crafted activist approaches to the holiday with far further reaches and greater power than the standard hashtag or televised ad. In a shining example, Netflix released its brand new original series aimed at exploring social and political issues surrounding science – Bill Nye Saves the World – on the day before Earth Day. At the least, Netflix has found a way to key into holiday hype to promote its new creation, but a more likely theory would suggest that the company structured the entire series and its related promotional content to invest in a growing spirit of mainstream activism among consumers.
Netflix’s timely new series is just the latest in a trend of marketing forays into activism. The movement, however, has perhaps been most memorably accelerated by the 2016 US Presidential Election, which saw ad agencies taking far bolder stances than have been standard in past years. Those who spoke up spoke loud and clear: agencies including Droga5, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and Burrell Communications created pro-bono content for the Clinton campaign, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners rolled out a “Personalized Anti-Trump Ad Generator,” and Wieden + Kennedy opened a physical stand in Portland peddling “Donald Trump’s BS” (baloney sandwiches, that is).
Since then, the tide of activist advertising, complete with brash political statements and integrated campaigns, has only swelled, as we’ve seen in instances from 84 Lumber’s gutsy Superbowl LI ad to Pepsi’s well-publicized flop. Marketers across all industries are taking note of the passionate activism dominating today’s discourse and attempting to keep their brands relevant in its midst, with mixed results. While some see activist advertising as a logical extension of a brand’s purpose and values, others view the marketing trend as a crass attempt to profit by pandering to socially-conscious groups.
While no one can say how this marketing movement will develop down the road, many have already been eager to sound off on its current direction. Consider what you think the future holds for activist advertising – and, while you do, enjoy Saturday Night Live’s take: