By Tempest Wright, Staff Writer/Illustrator – May 13, 2021

The Social Capital of Marketing

Does marketing only exist to sell people things, or can the power of messaging be wielded to sponsor the greater good? In Japan, the Kanji characters that form the Japanese word for “advertising” actually translate to “widely inform” in English. This implies that the purpose of marketing reaches beyond selling goods and services. While socially conscious marketing isn’t a new concept, it has grown more pronounced due to the nature of current affairs. Racial tensions, financial anxieties, and pandemic fears have tilted the world off its axis in the last year. Amidst this unrest, the general public is ultrasensitive to the messages it receives via media, and specifically marketing.


Marketing is one of our society’s strongest vehicles for social change. In the last decade, attitudes surrounding cigarettes have altered so much that the tobacco industry had to rebrand itself through electronic vaping as tobacco sales plummeted. This culture shift was brought about by anti-smoking campaigns in conjunction with the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act that banned tobacco marketing on television and radio. Similarly, between 1985 and 1999, the use of seatbelts jumped from 14% to 79% due to auto safety campaigns promoting their use. There are countless more examples, from campaigns that encourage people of color to vote to PSAs about bullying. On the other hand, exposure to ad materials that promote unrealistic beauty standards and utilize photoshopped bodies have been linked to disordered eating, low self-esteem, and depression in adolescents and young adults.


Marketing is a mode of communication, and the messages people receive – even those that are subtle – have the power to shape their worldview. In 2007, a report found that the average American consumer is exposed to approximately 5,000 ads per day. As digital media steadily rises, it’s safe to infer that this number is exponentially higher over a decade later. Given the exposure, it’s no surprise that marketing has a grip on the general public’s subconscious, thus an influence on their core beliefs.


The reflection of advertisements on people’s core beliefs was exemplified after the 2013 Cheerios commercial that featured a mixed-race family. While the backlash was so heavy that the brand had to disable comments underneath the video (since removed) on their YouTube page, a greater number of people came to the defense of the family’s depiction in the commercial. While Cheerios probably didn’t intend to cause such a ripple, the incident sparked a national conversation about the state of race relations in the United States. Additionally, after the ad came out and Cheerios saw an increase in sales, other brands, such as Honey Maid and Coca-Cola, began casting diverse representation in their ads. This type of inclusion is one way that marketing creates a new normal and defines what is considered mainstream in society.


Socially conscious marketing centers the consumer, prizes innovation and new ideas, and aligns with the brand’s mission. Conversely, irresponsible marketing relies on stereotypes, exclusion, and empty gestures. During the 2020 uprisings that resulted from the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, several brands were denounced for posting black squares to their Instagram feeds, while simultaneously upholding discriminatory policies within their own companies and marketing behaviors. The black squares were meant to represent solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but the display is hollow when there is no progressive reform within the brand to back it up. For example, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, centered around all facets of body image, appeals to consumers concerned with feminist ideals and positive diversity and inclusion in media. Dove has gone so far as to pay other brands to increase diversity in their marketing materials. The new-age consumer is versed in social issues, and will spot disingenuity from a mile away. Furthermore, this informs their purchasing decisions. However, beyond selling a product, marketing has the capacity to change the world and the way consumers interact with society.


The responsibility that marketing and advertising carry is potent. While its reception is dependent on existing consumer attitudes, marketing has the power to shed light on current issues and imagine and deliver new approaches. When the minds of the masses are directly involved, brand messaging goes beyond consumerism and profit.


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