The biggest story in marketing this week was, of course, the advertising from Super Bowl XLVIII. Companies lined up to spend as much as $4 million per 30-second spot to reach more than 110 million viewers. What was most noteworthy about this year’s crop of commercials? The remarkably high degree to which marketers relied on cause and social issues to tell their stories—revealing just how far corporate social responsibility has come as a core brand and business strategy.


But ubiquity does not necessarily equal quality. Although most of the cause-focused ads were heartfelt and compelling, with brands wrapping themselves beautifully in emotions triggered by a wide range of issues, the cause-focused commercials generally left something significant on the table. Most were high-minded, feel-good expressions of brand values and beliefs that didn’t really go anywhere—versus focused commitments to meaningfully address important issues, supported by clear calls to action.

Let me explain.

Coke’s #AmericatheBeautiful spot courageously celebrated the diversity of the New America with the national anthem in multiple languages. Cheerios’ “Gracie” ad matter-of-factly featured an interracial family, despite conservative blow-back to a similar 2013 spot. Intuit’s #TeamSmallBiz commercial featuring GoldieBlox gave a national platform to a start-up dedicated to empowering girls through play. Duracell’s ad, “Trust the Power Within,” featuring the Seahawks’ Derrick Coleman’s triumph over a hearing disability carried a message of inspiration. And the list goes on and on…

Now, contrast these with the work of a few standout brands that took things to the next level. The collaboration among U2, Product (RED) and Bank of America to benefit the Global Fund challenged consumers to take action (“Download now to begin the end of AIDS”) via a free iTunes song within a clearly defined 24-hour window. The result was a $3 million donation to help provide life-saving HIV/AIDS treatment, testing and prevention services to tens of millions of people in the world’s poorest countries. Similarly, Chevy’s ad supporting cancer survivors had a clear connection to an issue and a trusted nonprofit. The spot raised awareness of World Cancer Day and engaged viewers with a call to action to “Join Chevy and the American Cancer Society” in celebrating survivors and those who support them, directing viewers to a website presenting ways to get involved. See the difference? Imagine if other brands had similarly used the reach of the Super Bowl to take tangible steps, in real time, toward tackling social issues important to them. What if Coke, Cheerios, Intuit and Duracell had asked people to actually do something to fight intolerance or champion diversity or help young girls succeed in science?

What brands (and the agencies that support them) often fail to understand is how important actually doing something is when it comes to social impact. Consumers today increasingly want to align themselves with brands that are actually making the world a better place. Our research shows 93 percent of U.S. consumers expect companies to support social and environmental issues, play a role in communities, change the way they operate or openly advocate for change. And results matter. A lot. Eighty-two percent of consumers say they are more likely to purchase a product from a company that clearly demonstrates the results of its CSR initiatives versus one that does not.  

Key takeaways from this Super Bowl commercial post-game analysis? Challenge yourself to take your brand beyond the feel-good, make and deliver against real commitments and invite your stakeholders in. Because when brands roll up their sleeves and work side-by-side with their consumers to solve real issues, it suddenly doesn’t feel like advertising anymore. That’s unlocking the real power of cause.

Craig Bida, Executive Vice President, CSR/Social Impact



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