Jun 5 2024
Lois Castillo

The Future of Social and Environmental Advocacy in Advertising


Purpose-driven marketing appears to have hit a crossroads. While the 2010s and early 2020s saw a rise in brands taking bold stands to advocate for social and environmental causes, many advertisers have grown more cautious in the past year—particularly in light of the Bud Light boycott and the Target Pride month merchandise backlash. These events seem to have advertisers wondering: Do brands have a place in social and environmental advocacy? And is there any way to get it right?

In the case of Bud Light, the brand partnered with influencer Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman, and was the subject of a boycott by conservative Americans who were unhappy that Bud Light was indicating support for transgender rights. In the case of Target, the brand drew backlash relating to its Pride-related merchandise—some of which was based on misinformation spread via social media—and consequently withdrew some of that merchandise from certain stores and from their website. Both brands then garnered further backlash from prominent LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups and consumers who felt the brands’ responses represented a failure to maintain support for their community.

Now, in the wake of those incidents and their ensuing fallout, many brands are reevaluating whether taking a social or environmental stand is worth the risk. In assessing whether purpose-driven marketing makes sense for their organizations—and, if so, how to execute it effectively—marketing leaders must determine whether they are running these campaigns for the right reasons and honestly assess whether the values they’re touting are truly fundamental to their brands or just a convenient marketing opportunity. To do so, they must not only look inward, but understand the history of social and environmental advocacy in advertising, how consumers feel about it today, and what successful purpose-driven marketing looks like.

The Evolution of Social and Environmental Advocacy in Advertising

Over the past decade, conscious consumerism has grown more mainstream as more and more consumers have embraced the idea of “voting with their dollars,” or purchasing from brands whose values align with their own. While the idea of dollar voting has been around for a while, the rise of the internet accelerated its adoption, as consumers grew fluent in using the web to research brands and circulate information about their activities.

And it’s not just consumers who have driven this shift—employees increasingly want to work for businesses who uphold social and environmental values. Over half of US workers say they would leave their current job for an employer who has a more positive impact on the world, including 71% of employees age 18-to-29 and 62% of those age 30-to-44.

These shifts are likely influenced by the fact that consumers are growing more diverse across multiple axes: Racial and ethnic diversity is increasing amongst the US population, and the percentage of US adults who self-identify as LGBTQ+ has more than doubled since 2012, including one in five Gen Z adults. As our society grows more diverse, there’s been rising demand for brands to not only represent that diversity in their marketing, but to authentically demonstrate their inclusion and support for different communities (particularly historically marginalized communities) as well.

Accordingly, more brands began to take social stands in their advertising. Nike made Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem at his games to protest racial injustice and police brutality, the face of its “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign. Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” campaign took on toxic masculinity in conversation with the #MeToo movement. And numerous brands—including MAC Cosmetics, The North Face, and Levi’s—have run Pride campaigns supporting LGBTQIA+ causes during June each year.

But this kind of purpose-driven marketing can be a risky undertaking, as many social and environmental causes are politicized, and “taking a side” can mean running the risk of alienating a significant fraction of the public, especially in places like the US where political polarization is high. At the same time, consumers are quick to criticize brands who try to capitalize on the attention given to social and environmental issues in inauthentic ways.

As such, understanding when, why, and how to take a stand on social and environmental issues is a skill set that’s increasingly important for modern marketers. Today’s consumer base has high expectations around authenticity, and it takes work to build the trust, connection, and loyalty that brands covet—while, of course, avoiding the negative impacts of potential backlash. And although getting purpose-driven marketing right might seem like a daunting task, it’s simpler than advertisers might expect: Essentially, it comes down to knowing a brand’s values, and ensuring that brand is authentically living out these values before addressing a related social or environmental issue in your messaging.

To Take a Stand or Not to Take a Stand

Despite trends in conscious consumerism, employee preference for socially responsible employers, and growing demographic diversity, consumer sentiments around purpose-driven marketing aren’t unanimously positive. In a 2023 survey, 53% of respondents reported feeling that corporations should not engage with political or cultural issues. And, researchers have found that when brands promote controversial messages, their advertising outcomes suffer, even for brands who are well known for their activism. At the same time, social and environmental causes don’t trump other factors in consumers’ purchase decisions: Quality, price, and convenience are the most important factors influencing US consumers’ purchases. Considering these factors, some brands may reasonably decide that purpose-driven advertising isn’t right for them.

However, the consumer base of tomorrow may lean more towards favoring brands who take social stands. Millennials and Gen Z, who will soon claim the majority of buying power in the US, are more likely to be socially conscious purchasers and 27% more likely than older generations to buy from a brand that they believe cares about its social and environmental impact. They also understand their purchasing power more than older generations, which makes them more likely to engage in conscious consumerism. As a result, brands looking to engage younger audiences may want to consider purpose-driven marketing to show these consumers that they share their values.

Of course, meeting consumer sentiments and expectations isn’t the only reason brands adopt purpose-based marketing. Advertisers have the power to shape and define culture with the messages and representations they put out into the world, and I believe that power comes with great responsibility. When advertisements only feature actors and models who look a certain way, for example, that indirectly signals to consumers who look differently that they don’t belong. There’s a wealth of research highlighting how unrealistic beauty standards in advertising impact the mental health of girls and women: One study found that exposure to Instagram ads featuring thin or curvy women influence late-adolescent girls' views of their bodies, potentially increasing their willingness to take drastic actions to alter their appearance. I think more and more advertisers are understanding their impact and growing more thoughtful about their messaging as a result, and that’s another reason why brands are increasingly taking social and environmental stands with the goal of having a positive impact on our society.

The Inauthenticity Trap

With the rise in socially conscious consumers and socially conscious advertising, however, has also come a spike in brands who try “talk the talk” without also “walking the walk,” hoping to reap the benefits of purpose-based marketing without having to demonstrate a genuine commitment to those values. For example, a brand might run a Black History Month-themed campaign to capitalize on the attention given to the Black community during February, despite not having a racially diverse employee or vendor base and/or while their Black employees don’t feel supported.

This type of marketing has grown into such a problem that there are specific terms for brands trying to inauthentically capitalize on the attention being given to certain social causes, such as “greenwashing,” “rainbow-washing,” and “woke-washing.” And consumers, regulators, and organizations alike are increasingly cracking down on this behavior.

Brands get called out on social media every year for inauthentically tapping into social causes—for example, the Gender Pay Gap Bot on X highlights corporations’ International Women’s Day messages alongside their internal gender pay gaps to expose their inauthenticity. In Europe, regulators are introducing and enforcing legislation that makes greenwashing a legally punishable offense. And Pride in London, the nonprofit that organizes one of the UK’s biggest LGBTQ+ Pride festivals, is asking that advertisers who want to participate in this year’s festival engage with LGBTQIA+ causes throughout the year and promote LGBTQIA+ inclusion within their organizations.

All in all, inauthenticity when taking social stands can lead to consumer backlash and negative brand perception, and it is one of the main traps brands fall into when trying to embrace socially conscious advertising. In contrast, brands can find success in supporting social causes when they do so authentically and as part of a long-term strategy.

How Brands Can Meaningfully Support Social Causes—and Address Potential Backlash

My biggest recommendation for brands looking to embrace social and environmental causes in their advertising is this: Make sure whatever cause you’re looking to advocate for is one that your organization actively and genuinely supports before you share that advocacy externally. For example, if a brand wants to run a campaign during Earth Month related to their commitment to sustainability, they need to start with an internal audit. What’s the environmental impact of how their products are made? Do they regularly donate to and partner with environmental causes and organizations? Do their employees feel that their brand authentically acts out a commitment to the environment? If so, that brand is well-positioned to leverage their strategists and creatives to create a sustainability-focused marketing campaign.

Brands also need to understand that taking a stand on a social issue may result in backlash, and they should have a plan for if and how they’ll respond if that happens. Target’s response to the backlash it received last year is, unfortunately, a good example of what not to do. In reducing its Pride-related merchandise in response to criticism, the brand received even more criticism from consumers who felt it had walked back its support of the LGBTQIA+ community. Panelists discussing LGBTQ brand advocacy at SXSW this year agreed that in the end, the situation only grew more toxic for Target when they engaged in that initial backlash by walking back their stance.

Due to the political polarization around many social issues, there’s a good chance that brands will receive backlash when they take social stands. This is why leaders need to plan for if and how they’ll respond to criticism. Ideally, social and environmental stands should be one part of a brand’s authentic, long-term engagement with a community or issue. When brands are deeply committed to their values, they accept the fact that not everyone will be aligned with those values. Organizations that understand this, and that are prepared to hold true to their values in the face of criticism and disagreement, will be best positioned to run a successful purpose-driven campaign without wavering under pressure and suffering any subsequent erosion of trust with its core audience for doing so.

Ultimately, the keys to taking a social stand effectively are to do so as part of a long-term strategy that includes both internal and external action, reflects a deep understanding of a brand’s values and of their audience’s values, and that doesn’t waver amidst criticism.

Wrapping Up: Navigating Social and Environmental Advocacy in Advertising

While purpose-driven marketing is by no means right for all brands, it’s something marketing leaders will want to consider as younger, socially conscious generations inherit the majority share of consumer buying power in the coming years. Agency leaders, in particular, will need to train their teams on how marketers can advocate for social and environmental causes in effective ways in their advertising, so that they’re prepared when their clients inevitably show interest in doing so.

At the end of the day, while the nuts and bolts of purpose-driven campaigns can be tricky to iron out, the recipe for success is fairly simple: Brands should take social stands only as part of authentic, longstanding commitments to those causes, which are reflected both inside and outside their organizations.