5 examples of corporate social responsibility in advertising

While businesses always want good press around charitable efforts and community partnerships, when ads become a part of corporate social responsibility (CSR) it is not as cut and dry as “make a donation, write a press release.” In the past couple of decades, corporations are dealing in information and messaging as corporate social responsibility as much as they are using other resources for the public good.

This matters because how companies approach the advertising that accompanies any corporate social responsibility issue or initiative is often far more divisive than the projects they represent. Much advertising is intended to make an emotional statement that triggers a response in potential consumers, especially when a viral outcome is desired.

CSR efforts and corresponding ad campaigns deserve to be looked at with a skeptical eye — it often pushes right to the limit of questions about the ability for corporations to do good in their communities outside of acting as an employer. It is up to each of us to decide what efforts deserve our support and our dollars.

What is corporate social responsibility?

Before we can deconstruct CSR ad campaigns, we need to know what corporate social responsibility is. CSR is a term that describes the trend of companies committing in some way to “give back” to society. The true motivations behind corporate social responsibility are mixed and include:

  • To gain a competitive advantage
  • To attract socially conscious consumers
  • To align with a CEO’s desires
  • To bolster business and marketing strategies
  • To attract talent
  • To increase employee retention

While the actual business results of CSR are mixed, according to a study published by Cambridge in 2010, that hasn’t slowed down corporate adoption of visible CSR work, especially as 66% of consumers globally say they prefer to buy from companies that have made an effort to “give back to society,” according to a Nielsen study from 2012.

A company’s social responsibility initiatives are visible through their marketing efforts, and most companies that launch CSR programs combine those initiatives with ad campaigns. These campaigns are a delicate balance of issue awareness, good PR, branding and bad PR, as well. For some issues, the publicity around the campaign may do as much or more heavy lifting as the other elements of an initiative (e.g., a donation).

1. GE’s “Balance the Equation” takes on women’s underrepresentation in STEM

The ad:

This ad, included in GE’s “Balance The Equation” initiative, was a viral spot that imagined a world where Millie Dresselhaus was a mega-celebrity. It featured shots of a Millie Dresselhaus action figure, and kids dressed up as the scientist for Halloween.

This ad questioned the low visibility of women’s accomplishments in STEM. It highlights how the “great scientists” category is overwhelmed by men — Newton, Einstein, Hawking, Pasteur — and women’s accomplishments get buried by history. Dresselhaus, relatively unknown to the general public before the ad, won both the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and taught at MIT for 57 years.

The outcome:

Reactions to this campaign were mixed. The New York Post called it “creepy,” and suggested it highlighted our problematic obsession with celebrity rather than moving a discussion about women in STEM forward. And even if Dresselhaus were as famous as the ad imagines, a few female scientists becoming ultra-famous would certainly not break down all of the barriers women face when working in STEM fields.

Slate fired back with a piece that praised GE’s hiring effort and the ad. They pushed back on the notion that a spotlight for female scientists is a celebrity-mania fever dream by citing research that says the more women who are visible in STEM, the more women feel confident in their abilities and excited about the subjects. “Women in STEM beget more women in STEM,” as they put it.

What GE did right was create an ad that tackled an incredibly complex issue without turning a gender-based problem into a kitschy “girl power” moment. The problems women in STEM face are too big to be squashed into an ad spot, and by taking a completely different approach to their campaign, GE avoided that potential misstep.

The verdict:

The campaign has real meat behind it — GE promised to hire 20,000 women in STEM positions by 2020 to reach gender parity in their entry-level positions. That backing makes the video’s simplification of the issue it tackles somewhat forgivable, and they certainly introduced a lot of people to Millie Dresselhaus. Sometimes playing it safe does pay off.

2. 84 Lumber’s “The Entire Journey” swings at immigration reform

The ad:

The 2017 Super Bowl ad for 84 Lumber was a short film showing the journey of a mother and daughter from South America to the US border, where they find that a group of construction workers has cut doors into a fictitious wooden border wall, allowing them to enter the US.

The ad was deemed “too political” for the Super Bowl, and Fox demanded the spot be shortened in order for it to be played during the event. This meant that the version of the ad that aired during the Super Bowl cut off in the middle, and 84 Lumber inserted a clip with a link to their website for viewers to finish the short film.


The outcome:

84 Lumber had 11 million views on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter combined and 40 million web requests to their website in the four days after the ad’s release, according to the company.

While this was a viral spike, it didn’t translate to name recognition for the brand. “Only 50% of the 500 US consumers surveyed by Ace Metrix could identify the brand after they watched the TV ad, compared to 80% for all ads on average,” according to Quartz. Considering the astronomical cost of creating Super Bowl ads, this is a failure for brand return.

This may partially be due to the fact that the ad was truncated at the demand of Fox, leaving people with an incomplete picture of the ad’s vision. Viewers may have felt it was a clickbait ploy to air only part of an ad and give a web link to get people to visit the company’s website.

Additionally, the ad could seem to be out of the blue for a construction materials company with no recognizable, major initiatives surrounding immigration either in their charitable donations or their hiring efforts. If it were tied into specific corporate values that 84 Lumber wanted to highlight, it might have been more memorable. But rather than leaning in, the company backpedaled on the political nature of their ad, repeatedly insisting that it was not meant to be “political.” The owner of 84 Lumber even publicly stated that she voted for Trump.

The verdict:

This ad is emotionally arresting when viewed in full, but the circumstances surrounding the ad and the company’s backpedaling statements confuse this campaign. If 84 Lumber had had a fleshed-out corporate initiative and messaging around immigration, the flurry of press around Fox’s rejection could have been a platform for a CSR initiative. But instead of doubling down and committing to their stance, 84 Lumber muddied the waters. If no press is bad press, then the construction company’s ad was a hit — but it rings hollow on corporate responsibility front. But 84 Lumber probably would have gotten a better return from a more on-brand Super Bowl spot.

3. REI’s “Opt Outside” goes all-out anti-consumerism

The ad:

Outdoor clothing and equipment retailer REI has built a yearly event out of Black Friday, but not in the way you might expect. Their #OptOutside campaign features a montage — not of deals, discounts and shopping — but of friends and families exploring the wilderness. Hiking, kayaking, camping, biking, canyons, and hammocks invite people outdoors, and REI closes their stores on Black Friday to discourage shopping and encourage heading outside. This anti-consumerism effort has won several awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and it’s easy to see why.

The outcome:

While REI’s sales don’t benefit from a Black Friday bump, their anti-Black Friday ad has done well gaining attention on social media. Fast Company reported that “in 2015, #OptOutside attracted more than 1.4 million people and 170 outdoor companies, nonprofits, and organizations to participate, and over the last three years that’s grown to 15 million people and 700 organizations.”

REI’s #OptOutside campaign will continue to gain in popularity as the madness of Black Friday and consumerism continues to be scrutinized.

The verdict:

REI is playing to their base with these ads, which mitigates the negatives of closing doors on a huge North American shopping “holiday.” Outdoorsy people probably want to hike rather than do a marathon day of shopping, and the social aspect of #OptOutside builds a feeling of community for people with that mindset when everything else caters to their bargain-hunting peers.

Speaking about the campaign, Chief Customer Officer Ben Steele said, “When we started this four years ago, it was that consumerism was spinning out of control, in a frenzy of consumption – I’ve got to have it, I need it, I’ll leave Thanksgiving dinner early to go get it. [Now] it feels like the cultural context has changed.” In a time when people are thinking more seriously about the ecological impact of consumerism, flocking to Marie Kondo’s methods and increasingly clamoring to unplug, REI looks ahead of the curve with this campaign.

4. Nike’s Dream Crazy amplifies activism

The ad:


Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign had a video (below) and print ads that featured famous athletes, such as Colin Kaepernick (in the ad above). The focus of the video, with Kaepernick’s voiceover, was on athletes who made history, took a stand, and rose above obstacles in their way to do something they believed in.

The outcome:

Colin Kaepernick quickly became the center of controversy for this campaign. Kaepernick is seen as a divisive figure because he kneeled during the national anthem in the course of his tenure as an NFL player to protest police brutality. Since then, he has been blacklisted from the NFL and become well-known for doing advocacy work with his own projects and with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Because of this, a group of people was upset by the ads because they conflated kneeling during the anthem with disrespect for the country or military, when it was and remains a very specific protest against police brutality. Some in this camp went so far as to cut the Nike symbols off their clothing and pledge never to buy the brand again.

Despite the naysayers, Nike received massive publicity for the campaign and saw an uptick in their business: Nike’s stock increased 5% and they reportedly made $6 billion in the weeks following the commercial.

The verdict:

Nike was commended for tackling one of the most sensitive issues with a big public show of support seemingly without co-opting the BLM movement for their own corporate ends. Making Kaepernick the face of their campaign appealed to people that are like-minded to him. And these people came out in force to support this move by Nike, even as the brand continued to outfit every team in the NFL, which continued to blacklist Kaepernick.

However, their commitment to real activism was lackluster. While they did donate to Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights campaign, their profits from sales connected to the campaign didn’t go to an activist cause. Quartz pointed out that consumers may have equated spending at Nike during this campaign as supporting Black Lives Matter, when none of the profits while the ad ran were specifically earmarked for that. Props to Nike for taking a big stand, but they could — and should — have gone all-in on their commitment.

5. United Colors of Benetton “faces” AIDS

The ad:

The relationship between corporate social responsibility and advertising has never been an easy one, and United Colors of Benetton’s 1992 ad showing an AIDS patient named David Kirby surrounded by his family shows that.


Their ad was a colorized version of a photo that initially appeared in LIFE magazine (below), tagged with their logo on the lower right. The artistic style is a result of a colorist using oil paints to give as realistic a style as possible to the photo.



The outcome:

United Colors of Benetton received backlash from gay rights activists, who felt that the ad was commodifying suffering. By 1995, the brand became embroiled in lawsuits in Germany, where some of their other provocative ads had been banned, because retailers refused to pay their bills in protest of what they felt were shock tactics.

However, the brand remained steadfast in their conviction that they were doing the right thing. At a time when over 200,000 people had been diagnosed with AIDS in the US alone, government responses were slow and inadequate, and the disease faced a stigma that still hasn’t been erased, United Colors of Benetton felt their willingness to stand behind the image and publicize Kirby, an activist, represented an overall good.

While exactly how the ad played into sales differed from region to region, the Italian company reported that “worldwide production rose by 13 percent in 1994,” suggesting that any backlash in sales from the 1992 ad was temporary.

The verdict:

The major factors in United Colors of Benetton’s favor are the fact that the family of David Kirby supported the ad, viewing it as a way they got to use the company to help other people — not viewing it as exploitative towards them or Kirby. Kirby’s father reportedly said, “If that photograph helps someone… then it’s worth whatever pressure we have to go through.”

However, it is difficult to brush past the voices of AIDS activists who responded negatively at the time the ad was run. While there is always more than one way to help a cause — and awareness is one — United Colors of Benetton’s propensity for provocative ads does make it feel more stunt than substance.

If United Colors of Benetton had really wanted to bring awareness and ease AIDS stigma, they could have done so in a number of other ways, including giving to non-profits and activists, or funding informational messaging. Selling a brand on the back of a disease epidemic is not a move that aligns with our current ideas of corporate responsibility, and United Colors of Benetton’s history of provocative ads devalued any positive message they hoped to send.

Use your consumer power

No matter what cause companies take on for their corporate social responsibility, pairing their advertising campaigns with specific initiatives ensures that campaigns will do the most good — think GE’s hiring plan as compared to 84 Lumber’s campaign-only statement.

And whatever ads a company produces, the messaging should be a careful consideration of their brand, their customers, and their values. REI’s campaign is a great example of marrying a corporate initiative with a branded identity in a way that enhances the message it sends. Their brand is going outside and exploring nature, so encouraging people to do that — even at the cost of missing Black Friday sales — makes sense for their company.

And, no matter what corporations do, they will be written off by some for having CSR policies and advertisements, because their corporate social responsibility efforts don’t come from a place of altruism. Still, the matter remains: corporations are now in the visible social responsibility game, they’re going to be making advertisements about it, and some of those advertisements are going to be better than others. Which advertisements are “good”? That may never be clear-cut.

As consumers, we must be able to bring a critical eye to campaigns. Corporations do change their tactics based on consumer sentiment, so one of the best ways to tackle the stickiness of CSR campaigns is to put your money where your opinions are — and to stop spending when companies miss the mark, whatever that means to you.