Advertising Age recently published an opinion piece positing that empathy is “picking up steam” and likely to become an official marketing buzzword for 2017. Like many themes I’m seeing this year, empathy (in the context of advertising and marketing) is both a visceral reaction to our collective political anxieties and a fallback for brands when the environment surrounding their customers is turbulent and ridden with strife.
An article in The Atlantic also highlighted how brands are finding new ways to sell empathy, sometimes in combination with social justice themes. One example, Starbuck’s “Year of Good” ad, lists the company’s socially beneficial achievements while exhorting viewers to be good to each other. To further make the point that advertising “has gone and grown a conscience,” the article points to a politically charged beer commercial that celebrates immigration – something that would have sent our current president into conniptions were he inclined to read something other than Page 6 of the New York Post.
The Atlantic also asks an important question: “When marketers act as arbiters — of goodness, of rightness, of us-ness” — does that say something profoundly optimistic, or profoundly cynical?”
In my opinion, it’s both
Selling, caring and instigating change
Any advertising, of course, needs to sell stuff, and one way to do that is to make people feel like brands can be relied upon. Like they really care. It may be cynical to tug at heart strings to sell a cup of coffee, but I find that much of today’s empathy marketing is serving a positive social purpose ‑ at least in the short term. Unlike a lot of the offensive discourse on social media. Or watching a murder on Facebook, in real time. In fact, advertising may even be a safe place for consumers who feel seriously depressed by the political conflict and social divisiveness we wake up to every day.
In context, a number of corporations have become forces for change. We saw this in North Carolina after the state began regulating transgender access to public restrooms. Companies protested, and the NCAA (and other sporting organizations) announced a boycott. Facing short-term revenue losses of more than $500 million — with the prospect of much larger losses ahead – the state legislature made a face-saving u-turn.
Money has that effect…which brings me to Fox News.
When the network’s long-standing bloviator, Bill O’Reilly, was hit by accusations of sexual harassment earlier this month, Mercedes and other sponsors of “The O’Reilly Factor” pulled at least half of their advertising, raising questions about his future with Fox News. It’s bad enough to have the cloud of misogyny hanging over your company, but to lose revenue…that’s when principles, political leaning and self-interest start to implode.
To someone with a progressive bent, both examples speak well for corporations and other organizations that have taken a stand for social justice. The problem, however, is that for every progressive corporate position it’s very easy to find examples to the contrary – reactionary or backward corporate positions, sometimes disguised by marketing campaigns that ooze with empathy.
Empathetic marketing, disguised?
An example that sticks in my mind is an “end the divide” campaign by Koch Industries. Yes, Koch Industries. Ostensibly aimed at Americans of all political stripes, the campaign was inspired by the conservative billionaire Charles Koch to soften his (and his company’s) image, as USA Today so politely put it.
In one of the Koch ads, a narrator laments the horrible divide between rich and poor, and black and white, because “government and corporations” are picking winners and losers and backing policies that fail “our most vulnerable.” In the background, soft piano music supports the doleful tone.
As I was wiping tears from my eyes, I thought, “Wait… Is this not the company that built mountains of solid petroleum waste in places like Chicago and Detroit? Or that consistently shows up on lists of America’s Top 5 producers of toxic waste? And that Koch wants to kill Social Security?”
Of course, Koch Industries doesn’t have a monopoly on disingenuous marketing ‑ we’re surrounded by it. Think of the NFL’s 2017 Super Bowl line up, when Lady Gaga, an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter, celebrated the LGBT community in a medley of her top hits. Again, this is a wonderful sign of social progress, and one that I salute. But is this the same NFL that for years turned a blind eye to the brain damage being inflicted among some of its most gifted players?
So, back to The Atlantic’s question: Is empathy advertising optimistic or cynical?
The magazine makes a case for optimism. Many companies simply are reflecting the changing values of today’s consumers, which would explain the move towards ethical sourcing and fair trade. A company can find itself on the right side of history as well as the more lucrative side of history, the writer noted.
I get the point but let’s not be naive. There’s Lady Gaga, but then there is always a Hobby Lobby willing to impose its evangelical values on, say, the use of contraception.
Empathy advertising has been around for generations, as a peek at a pre-World War II advertisement by the artist Norman Rockwell will instantly reveal. Building an emotional connection with an audience has and always will be a central element of marketing, even more so with digital’s dominance in how we source information and come to rely on and trust brands.
But I do believe that a company’s values must be consistent and aligned with all aspects of its business, starting with the way it treats its employees and customers every day – and in every transaction.
To limit “empathy” and to express moral values only in a marketing campaign is, in my opinion, a form of fraud. As marketers, if we’re going to stand for a moral cause, we really have to mean it.
While The Atlantic might be optimistic in its assessment of empathy marketing, I’m still profoundly a cynic.