Advertisers Must Include Three R’s in Their Social Cause Spots


Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah College 

One of the hottest promotional trends is for companies to show their support for significant social causes. While many firms do genuinely desire to make a difference, they also crave goodwill by association. If consumers appreciate a company’s stance on an issue, they might reward the firm with their business. After all, people want to do business with those with similar beliefs, so companies bank on that favor by investing in social cause spots. 

However, advertising can be very costly:  Thirty-second spots on this year’s Super Bowl, for example, went for a record $5.25 million.  So, it’s worth asking if any firm should spend so much to educate viewers about public issues such as bullying, immigration, and sexual harassment rather than promoting its own products.  

Unfortunately, no advertising offers a guaranteed return on investment, but socially-minded companies can greatly enhance their chance of success by infusing three R’s in their social advertising: relevance, realism, and reconciliation. 


Some companies choose to support issues that are largely unrelated to what they do.  Our music-minded son recognized a song from a commercial that appeared in a recent Super Bowl and rushed into the room. The spot highlighted the stories of cancer survivors.  When the commercial ended, he asked what the ad for, to which my wife replied, “I think it was for a pediatric cancer center.”  I’m sure they were among many who overlooked the questionable connection between cancer and cars, not realizing it was actually a Hyundai ad.



It’s nice of companies to support any cause that helps people in need.  It’s more strategic, though, for them to identify issues that the public will logically connect with the company.  During the same Super Bowl, Budweiser aired an ad “Stand by You” that showed cans of water with the company’s trademark A/eagle logo on the front, given to hurricane victims.  Of course, people don’t drink water for the same reasons they drink beer, but they do associate Budweiser with liquid refreshment.



Consumers are smart.  They can spot a fake quickly, and thanks to social media, they’re likely to call out companies whose social ads seem phony, as they did with Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner spot.  The commercial’s action inspired all kinds of misgivings like, “What are the chances a celebrity would just walk onto the street to join a crowd?”, “How could one can of cola suddenly change everyone’s attitude?” and “What exactly are those people protesting?”



In contrast, when a commercial’s acting and other action appear authentic, the company’s support of the issue also seems more genuine.  The 2017 Super Bowl ad for 84 Lumber entitled “The Journey Begins” is an example of high production quality lending credence to a social cause and to the commercial’s overall believability.



In an increasingly polarized population, there are few ‘safe’ social issues against which virtually no one will argue, e.g., breast cancer awareness and child abuse prevention.  This remains a reason why many companies decide against spending money on advertising for social causes. Companies aligning themselves with most other issues should expect a significant number of people to reject their stance, especially if presented in a way that appears divisive, which was the reaction of many to Gillette’s “We Believe” commercial.  Companies can, however, present social advertising messages in ways that reconcile rather than divide.



Verizon’s 2018 Super Bowl spot “The Team that Wouldn’t Be Here” is a good example of such a unifying approach.  The commercial highlighted the life-saving work of various first responders, including police officers—one of our country’s most controversial people groups.  An ad exalting police could easily repel a high percentage of the population; however, by describing how police officers and other first responders have saved the lives of many who now play or coach in the NFL, Verizon both took a social stand and peaceably bridged a deep cultural divide.



The most effective social advertising is promotion that’s relevant to the company, realistic to viewers, and reconciling for all, even on divisive issues. These three R’s represent the social advertising sweet spot for brands.

About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is an ethicist, a Professor of Marketing at Messiah College, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.  Before entering higher education, he worked as a corporate sales analyst for a national broadcasting company and as a partner in a specialty advertising firm.  His writing has been published in ForbesEntrepreneur, Marketing News, and Business Insider. 

More information is available at