Can a brand ask its audience to change?

Written by Dan Richardson, Director, Invention+, Mindshare

Don Draper, the famed anti-hero of AMC’s Mad Men, once opined that advertising was based on happiness—specifically, a kind of happiness that was “a billboard on the side of the road that screamed with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s ok.” And, for the most part, the advertising we encounter encourages us to see the brighter side of life.

In the 70’s Coca-Cola subtly subverted politically turbulent times by encouraging the world to share a Coke. Virginia Slims tapped into the changing roles of women in society and women’s liberation movement, and used their advertising to let them know “You’ve come a long way, baby.” For decades, advertising has responded to social change by focusing almost exclusively on the upside.

And as Millennials enter middle-age and Gen Z emerges with purchasing power, brands are increasingly looking for ways to harness the passions of this politically aware cohort of younger consumers. But increasingly, they are tackling some of the thorniest issues– not by slapping a veneer of optimism on the problem, but by actively taking a side in the “culture wars.”

In season two of Mindshare’s Media Dystopia, we explore the many ways brands can get “Red Henned”—that is, dragged into a politically charged controversy (and the backlash from the controversy), as our media environments and brand choices become increasingly polarized and segregated politically.

Recently, two brands have taken sides on issues: Nike, with embattled NFL star Colin Kaepernick as the face of their “Just Do It” 30-year anniversary campaign, and Gillette tackling toxic masculinity while refreshing their “The Best a Man Can Get” slogan for the #MeToo era.

Both campaigns are provocative and took sides in ongoing tension points in culture. Both campaigns drew a bevy of praise and backlash, Fox News commentary, and Medium think pieces. And the initial reaction to the campaigns seemed to settle on: Nike got it right because they reflected their audience’s feelings back at them while Gillette missed the mark because they were asking their audience to change.

As journalist Josh Barrow noted in his piece for “The difference in reaction to the two campaigns shows the limits of “woke capital,” and helps us see what kinds of social change companies will and won’t be successful at pushing. Nike’s campaign appeals to customers — and drives Nike’s sales — to the extent it reflects customers’ existing values back at them. That does not mean companies have the cultural capital to do what Gillette is trying: asking customers to reflect on and change their own behavior.”

And as Don Draper taught us, advertising is not supposed to tell the audience that they need to change.

But perhaps Gillette and Nike were not asking their consumers to change. Maybe they knew exactly who they were talking to, and how to use these hot-button social issues to drive affinity for their brand with that target.


Gillette may not have been asking existing consumers to change. Rather, they may have engaged  younger, unshaven consumers, who are less loyal to the brand to think of Gillette in a new way. In a way, this could be seen as a brand penetration effort, and it appears they were successful.

Despite a Reddit-inspired swarm of negative YouTube reactions, and immediate social media backlash, research commissioned by the brand showedthat 77% of Millennial and Gen Z men responded positively to the campaign (or were not offended by it), with 37% of them saying it improved their perception of the brand. And let’s not forget the women (who also purchase P&G’s razors)—84% of Millennial/Gen Z women responded positively and 51% viewed Gillette more favorably.

Ultimately, successfully reaching, engaging, and changing perception amongst a younger demographic (who are squarely in the target of new upstart brands like Dollar Shave Club or Harry’s) is a key goal for many established CPG brands.


Nike’s campaign launch had plenty of praise and controversy. A sales spikeand general insight that Nike had tapped into how sneakerheads (some of their heaviest consumers) feel about the Kaepernick situation, suggests that the campaign was a success. By igniting a passion amongst existing brand fans and spurring them to purchase a new line, the Nike effort could be seen as a successful “buy rate” strategy. It successfully sparked excitement with current Nike fans—as Barrow put it, reflecting their existing values back to them, not asking them to change.

In the end, when brands using their marketing to get involved in social issues, the goal is the same as it ever was—change perceptions and sell product. A keen understanding of your target, how they feel about a social issue, and how/if your brand can engage that topic is crucial for success in this space.