Corporations as Advocates: A Mixed Story

The topic of corporate advocacy is a complicated and broad issue, involving not only a wide range of causes but also a wealth of different approaches that shape how exactly a corporation chooses to advocate for them. The issue was foregrounded recently with the arrival of two high-profile advertisements from multinational corporations Pepsi and Heineken.

Pepsi’s ad was a strange beast, an attempt to build an association between their brand and the Millennial generation; specifically, those parts of it that identify as activists and protesters. It was criticised as inauthentic, pandering and patronising – and even for appropriating the imagery of movements such as Black Lives Matter. The anti-authoritarian sentiment, so familiar and commonly associated with youth, was distilled into montages of culturally and linguistically diverse teens abandoning their music jams, zine-building and photo shoots to join a protest rally alongside other clear-skinned youths with perfect teeth. Holding placards showing peace signs in the colour palette of a Pepsi logo, the march and its cause remained vague beyond a generic ‘peace, love and understanding’ motif. While notionally a positive and inclusive cause, being as non-specific as possible also transparently served the marketing motivation to generate mass appeal. The commodification of ‘resistance’ was as blatant as it was awkward. Truly weird stuff. Due to the widespread criticism and mockery, the ad was pulled, and apologies were issued.

Meanwhile, Heineken’s ad took a more targeted and ‘savvy’ approach, focusing on specific issues such as climate change, transgender rights and feminism. Strangers with opposing views on these matters were put in a room together, engendering a sense of imminent and inevitable conflict. They spent considerable time together, however, before being made aware of the setup. They humanised each other through conversation and working together, and only afterwards, were treated to video statements of their counterparts denying evidence-based science on climate change, equal rights for women, and the humanity of transgender people.

The way I’ve framed those views above highlights one of the key criticisms of this ad. While it was far better received, even held aloft as an example to Pepsi of ‘how to do it right’, it was still importantly flawed. As Jezebel’s Kara Brown wrote: ‘There’s a difference between people having different opinions and people having morally wrong opinions.’ Brown’s point is that Heineken is engaging in the same sins of ‘false equivalency’ that pervade Fox News panels, where climate change deniers are given equal platform alongside scientists. While Brown and others criticise this asymmetry in the ‘experiment’, one might also argue that it accurately reflects the realities of engaging on these issues. Transgender people, for example, often find themselves defending their humanity to people who would deny them of it. Scientists often find themselves facing widespread climate scepticism when the evidence does not support it. In a way, Heineken’s authenticity here may be a plus, by providing its broad message of advice on how to combat issues within a context that mirrors how they usually present in the real world. Whatever the case may be, the ad is an equally strange beast, and an equally complex example of how corporate advocacy works and is received.  

By highlighting the topic of corporate advocacy, however, these ads may have also narrowed our view of it. It’s tempting in the context of recent events to consider advocacy purely as an advertising endeavour, but corporations engage on issues in other ways too. ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ would be an example of a different type of advocacy in which a cause is championed in an arguably more tangible way. Sweatshop-free clothing brands are advocates for social justice, for example, and they champion that cause by making fundamental changes to their business practices. Their actions may contribute to an overall advertising strategy, yet there is more happening here than just that.

To continue the beverage theme, we could look at how Coke does things. As the world’s most popular soft drink, they stand to benefit from the same approach to inclusivity and mass appeal that Pepsi tried, and often their advertising reflects that. Other projects of theirs, however, more actively engage with issues like transnational unity by actively attempting to build it. You may not have heard of Coke Studio, but it’s a great example of this. Originally formed in Pakistan to showcase that nation’s music, Coke Studio features live performances from a wide range of renowned musicians. Due to its success, the idea has since spread to neighbouring India. While the two nations are at times rivals on the world stage, the shows are enormously popular in both countries. It can be argued that the act of sharing of music helps to unite people across national borders, building mutual respect and understanding along the way.

Coke’s funding and stewardship of this program strikes me as a far better example of the kind of ‘success’ shown in the Heineken ad. This is because the positive change is not only likely more real and lasting, but importantly also, because it is large-scale. Popular Coke Studio songs get hits in the tens of millions. Perhaps part of the success here derives from where the focus lies: on the project (the social good) and not its advertising potential. It’s a project first, and an ad second.

What these various examples show is that corporate advocacy is not any one thing. There will be spectacular failures like Pepsi and relatively quiet successes like Coke. There will be tokenistic changes, and there will be fundamental, structural shifts ­ like businesses going sweatshop-free. What is also evident is the role of the consumer. While ‘ethical’ or ‘conscious consumerism’ remains a debated concept, we as consumers will continue to play a major role in shaping what modern corporate advocacy looks like, and what it can achieve.