Can brands use advertising to drive social change?


Should advertising be used to drive social change? Like everything in advertising, there can’t be a strong yes or a stronger no answer to this question. Perhaps the best question is what role does advertising play in the brand’s overall marketing mix?

Advertising in any form is created with a specific intent – to create awareness, reinforce behavior, increase market share, increase usage opportunities, change habits, move to the next pack size. Advertising works best when it has a specific strategic goal and the creatives reflect that goal. Sometimes brands get greedy and skip a lot of steps; they want to drive big societal change without having a strong strategic goal, and then they fall flat.


When a brand creates what can only be called “publicity stunts”, the fallout from these stunts is often brutal and damaging to the brand. In a race to stand out and break through the clutter, the brand can end up shattered and bruised.

Take for example the recent AU Bank TVC featuring Kiara Advani and Aamir Khan. The commercial built on the back of the traditions of marriage, wants to reverse the traditions. The bride does not cry when she leaves the wedding venue, the groom goes to the bride, the groom takes the first step inside the house. Traditions have been reversed in the announcement. There’s nothing in the ad that could be controversial; it is not about asking people to question traditions, nor about asking them to follow new traditions when they get married; so why did the brand make the announcement? While many cynics felt the ad was created with the explicit intention of sparking outrage and becoming virally infamous, I’m not sure that’s the case. A financial brand generally tends to be very conservative and wants to avoid negative publicity. Still, the ad got a very strong reaction from people and was taken down.


This is where the issue of purpose comes into play. What is the goal that the brand wants to achieve? The brand promise is “change starts here”. It’s a nice promise to have, provided the brand is clear about the change. The communication is silent on the inherent promise of the product and ultimately has become a commentary on what traditions are and can be. Any advertising that does not reflect the inherent truth of the brand will be summarily rejected and, nowadays, will generate scorn and ridicule.

There is a brand new advertisement just released by Bharat Matrimony on Karwa Chauth. There too, traditions have been reversed, there too there is a large dose of charm. The brand is not moralistic; it’s telling a story in simple terms. Here too, the brand has no strategic objective – it does not communicate anything that can be called the truth of the product, it does not expect anything from its target audience. Will the advertisement mark Bharat Matrimony, or will it remain just one more advertisement that will only be part of a case study or award show? Without a well-defined objective, the commercial remained only a commercial, and what could have been an interesting interpretation of the brand is only an interesting interpretation of tradition.


Traditions are not just celebrations, traditions are also practices that are encoded in our behaviors, or habits that we have rarely questioned. Take the “Asi Reach Gaye” ad from Oyo Rooms. It’s built on a very specific goal, to help people take a break from driving whenever they choose to take a break. The current behavior is to look for a city or a large agglomeration to take a break when you are on a road trip; so Oyo created an alternate narrative. It caused the public to question existing practices, and didn’t stop there, it built what should be the new practice. The new practice helps the brand, and that’s the brilliance of the ad.

Traditions are a rich playground for the brand. By questioning traditions, a brand questions existing choices. But by dint of questioning traditions, a brand leaves the public indifferent or enraged. If the brand is to question traditions, it must impose a new practice, do good to its audience and do it with charm.

(The author is co-founder and CSO, Bang in the Middle. He tweets at @googlegupta)

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