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It used to be that the most successful ads were the ones that were clever enough to make us laugh. They had smart writing, CGI tricks, and sometimes even celebrated directors engaging us (while also suggesting we try the product that happened to be onscreen). Now? The same tricks and tools are just as often used to make us cry. Commercials are more and more making the claim that big brands care, too; that they’re not the faceless, heartless monoliths we make them out to be.

More than a decade ago, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign (2004) gave a big, authentic push toward changing the cultural conversation about beauty and the beauty industry, making it clear that women crave understanding, and not another reason to feel bad about themselves. Back then, Dove touched a raw nerve for women, laying our vulnerability bare. Our ridiculous aspirations of beauty crumbled at the sign of truth and sisterhood. Even if we didn’t buy, we bonded, and the brand image skyrocketed.

The expansion of sadvertising

Other advertisers took note. All those crying consumers liked to share the commercials that moved them. Dove won awards. Maybe with all that compassion, crying was a good thing for a brand?

Since then, many other brands have made similar plays. Always brand got into the act with their Like a Girl campaign, trying to wipe out a slur that put many a girl and woman “in her place.”


Feel-good vibes didn’t just bridge the gender divide, either. Valspar created new technology in the form of glasses that allow colorblind people to see color in the real world.

Samsung’s Hearing Hands effort coaxes a whole town to learn sign language, changing a young man’s sense of community and worldview.

Sports, as well, have always sounded a theme of hope and inspiration. Nike did their part recently with a piece tracking Rory McIlroy’s love of golf and rise to sport’s green jacket of success.

The Guardian called this phenomenon The Rise of Sadvertising: Why Social Good Advertising Works in a recent article. They suggest that the rhetoric is a means of cutting through clutter, claiming “brand marketing campaigns that champion a social issue are becoming commonplace as advertisers look for ways to create emotive, shareable content.” Sharable content, of course, is where it’s at. These days social sharing, as much as any particular media channel, is what drives eyeballs.

Big brands show empathy

Did the advertisers, creatives and the consuming public simply run through every other available option, from bikini babes to belching frogs? Is sadvertising actually an empathetic response to a world becoming more cruel, more unthinkable? Do we really need to be encouraged to care or emote?

We all want the world to be a better place, but it’s likely that the state of the culture and society has hit such a scary, intractable point that the shift in how we consume, and what we expect from brands is taking a slow, but important, turn. We expect business to be part of the solution – not just to our personal, consumer problems, but to broader, global and cultural problems – with transparency and accountability.

Maybe brands are just trying to show how innovative they are, and that they’re willing to put their engineering smarts to use for a greater good.

Volvo Cars LifePaint is another great example of a business practice that reaches out. Their tagline is “the best way to survive a crash, is not to crash.” LifePaint itself is a unique, reflective safety spray. Invisible by daylight, it shines brightly in the glare of car headlights. In a way, it makes the invisible visible. It also makes Volvo come off as smart, innovative, timely and brand authentic.

Action toward accountability?

More individuals are pursuing a Triple Bottom Line path in their careers and through education. We’re all becoming more aware of the broader social implications of our actions, and sometimes that extends to sniffing out superficial social responsibility programs. With so many grandiose brand claims around, consumer scrutiny goes up.

We all benefit from big corporations doing good deeds. But the consuming public has developed a thicker skin, searching for evidence that corporations aren’t just playing tricks to get us to buy more stuff. We’re already hip to greenwashing; do we now have to be on the watch for goodwashing? We probably do. According to a recent Gallup poll, fewer than half the consumers surveyed believe that companies always fulfill on their brand promises.

In a time when inequality is getting more attention, when companies have more cash on hand than ever, and when wages are only barely inching up, is goodwashing simply a clever tactic to get us to look the other way and simply believe them when they tell us that they really DO care about all of us?

As social responsibility becomes more of an expectation than a nice-to-have, consumers will look for companies that have those values baked into their business rather than as an easily disposed standalone initiative. Or, at the very least, people want simple ways to distinguish the good guys from the fakes.

Business for Peace is one organization that can help, recognizing companies from around the world who “positively changing the face of business.” Each year, an independent committee of Nobel Prize winners selects those business people who “exemplify the Foundation’s concept of being businessworthy: ethically creating economic value that also creates value for society.” This years’ awards are announced, today,  May 6th, acknowledging those companies that inspire their peers, advocate for ethical business principles, and are trusted by the communities they serve.

B Corp, or Public Benefit Corporation, is a new legal corporate designation for a new type of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. B Corps are still structured to make money, but are also responsible to do social good. The company remains open to economic audit but also an audit of environmental and social progress and activity. A B Corp is a new signal to consumers and investors that they are going to walk their talk. Many states have begun to certify the B Corp designation. For instance, Warby Parker is a B-Corp and uses an intelligent process of working with/through the community to deliver its BOGO glasses.

What consumers should watch for

While we dry our eyes from those touching commercials, we need to watch for a few things in order to keep the companies selling to us honest. Below are a few tips for warding off goodwashing:

  • Is there corporate activity to follow the ad campaign? Do companies show an ongoing, dedicated effort?
  • Does the corporation contribute to a solution to the problem in any other meaningful way?
  • Does the ad or product or company improve lives, or just make me cry?