It has been virtually impossible not to be overwhelmed by recent gun violence in the United States. Like the poignant moments in culture and politics before it, the issue of gun violence commands attention across the country. With calls to address the issue, the ad industry as a whole finds itself in a familiar position.
Creative agencies and the advertising industry as a whole occupy a privileged position as cultural communicators. I think the leaders of this industry have a responsibility to try to represent the world we want to live in, instead of standing on the sidelines. However, the power we wield to influence public opinion is balanced by the limitations of that power and the fact that we do not work in a vacuum. We can’t do this alone.
The Lost Class: The Power of a Creative Agency
How is the communication with the culture? In June 2021, Leo Burnett was approached by the gun safety organization Change the Ref to create a campaign that would force gun advocates to reckon with the consequences of their expertise. During the investigation phase, we were shocked to discover that 3,044 children who would have been in the class of 2021 were killed by firearms, 3,044 children who would never graduate this year.
To highlight the problem, the team created a campaign, called ‘The Lost Class’, to demonstrate the impact. We organized a graduation ceremony for child victims of gun violence, each represented by an empty white chair, set against a pristine green field. He was inspired by the image of the thousands of perfectly aligned white crosses on the monument in Normandy, France, that honors the American troops who died in Europe during World War II. The image was so striking that we thought that once you saw it, you couldn’t unsee it.
To make our point even stronger, we invited former NRA President David Keene to be the commencement speaker. It was a ruse that required creating the fake James Madison High School, named after the author of the Second Amendment, as a subtle incentive to convince Keene to attend.
Keene agreed to speak and we took him to a rehearsal where he gave a speech on the right to access guns to the deceased audience while asking them to “stand up for your rights.”
The video has since been widely shared in Congress, reaching a huge audience and raising money for a great cause. We leaned into risk because it seemed too important not to create this campaign. However, the recent shooting at a Texas school showed us that we must be careful not to isolate ourselves from grim political realities or get carried away with our own enthusiasm: not everyone sees what we see. But apparent failure doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. Creative courage is not just having the nerve to promote an unpopular vision with a creative solution, but the commitment to do whatever it takes, no matter how long it takes. I think this is part of our responsibility as definers of culture.
A legacy to celebrate and emulate
Acts of creative bravery leave a powerful legacy that can change the public narrative and shift cultural values. They often show us uncomfortable truths about ourselves.
Nike featured Colin Kaepernick in its campaign to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its ‘Just Do It’ tagline in 2018, but also had the former NFL player narrate the ad. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” Kaepernick says with his back turned before he reveals his identity to himself in the final shots.
The Wieden+Kennedy agency announcement sparked a social media backlash and boycott threats, but Nike posted a 31% sales increase in the immediate aftermath.
Mexican beer brand Tecate closed the door on toxic machismo culture and a part of its own market in its 2016 domestic violence campaign. Featuring a series of portrayals of stereotypical masculinity, the ad tells men who abuse women: “We don’t need your business.
There are dozens of other examples: a German agency, GGH MullenLowe, taking on neo-Nazis; Wunderman London showing morbid images to celebrities for a tropical disease charity; Gillette revoking its own slogan ‘The best a man can get’ in support of the #MeToo movement.
The responsibility to serve as a cultural mirror
Historically, ads have offered a snapshot of the best and worst of society, but as trust in government and the media remains weak, the public increasingly expects companies to align themselves with social and political causes.
An Edelman survey before the pandemic found that nearly two-thirds of consumers globally (64%) bought or boycotted a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue. In its 2022 Trust Barometer, Edelman found that 61% of respondents considered business to be the most trusted institution in society.
As leaders of thousands of creative people around the world, there is an opportunity not only to respond to changing public expectations, but to lead the way through creative courage, while also recognizing limitations.
Creatives are not lobbyists and they do not write laws. As providers of culture, their zone of influence is where creativity and communications intersect. Creatives have serious tools in their toolbox and can use them to the best of their ability.
In support of causes that matter
Whether we like it or not, advertising and marketing influence culture, stereotypes and identity. Now more than ever, the public expects the industry to use this power in ways that matter today. Leaders can respond by leaning on their responsibility and having the courage of their convictions.
At its best and bravest, advertising can offer insight into how people can shape a more just and humane world and affect modes of human experience and interaction for the better. Creative courage can redefine sustainability from a narrow focus on sales and profitability to help highlight movements driving needed change in the world.