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March 22, 2006
Beyond Obligation

Lately, I've been noticing how well advertising works. Not that we've answered age-old questions of consumers and message effectiveness and how to attain market share, but I do see this: there is more and more advertising that strives to make the world better.

Think of the Citi campaign that reminds us there's more to life than money in a series of well-crafted headlines to mark the brand. Or the Dove campaign that shows laughing real women. Or even the Pedigree campaign that reminds us the family role dogs play in our lives. All grow ideas that are smart, honest, empowering in ways other than obligatory selling.

There's a solid group of professionals working out there, creating content beyond the simple obligation to sell products honestly, beyond persuasion and strategy, beyond even the cool and groovy of a hip new brand. Media folks, researchers, planners and account execs, I’m sure, have a role in this. But from my perspective as a university professor with friends and ex-students all over the creative side of the industry, I absolutely know it happens with writers and art directors. When you see what they craft as solutions to brand problems, it hits you.

These people are working to change culture, all the while doing a helluva job making ads.

It's not volunteerism or pro bono work I'm talking about, though we all know those are important gifts to the community. The focus here is on smart strategy honing sharp ads for mainstream goods and services. It seems to me that the people crafting those ads often have an interesting two-pronged agenda. Their first objective is to produce relevant, rewarding work for a client. But the second objective for these creatives is to help fuel how people think and feel, how they frame issues and ideas in a cultural context. It’s about doing something meaningful that is beyond obligation.

In talking with those creatives, I hear repeatedly a most fervent wish to do work of value to the greater good. They want to paint wonderful stories: consider the work for Mini or HP or Nike on any given day and you realize there's more than just strategy going on there. Something life-affirming exists within the framework of the ad. More, the people I'm thinking about challenge ideas of who is part of the story being told: witness the use of minorities and women in unexpected key roles to explain brands. I’ll never forget the call from a kid fifteen years ago. Newly hired and working on breakfast cereal, he had just cast a spot and used a little girl that reminded him of his sister as a child. “No one on TV ever looked like us when we were watching Saturday morning cartoons. This felt so good,” he explained. His last name is Garza, and fifteen years ago this casting moment was new territory for the brand.

More recently, a creative director friend cast the executive in a spot for Computer Associates with an African-American. He happened to be the best actor in the mix, and the creative director – a woman – happens to have a knack for making the offbeat enjoyable. The spot won a bucket of awards for its salesmanship and humor, but the news here is that agency and client received racist hate mail for the use of a black man as executive. Would you do it again, I asked the creative director? "Definitely," she said, "for all the right reasons."

These are simple things accomplished daily in the advertising world. The inspiring words in a headline, out-of-the-ordinary casting decisions, the interesting branch of the decision tree taken during conceptualizing that leads to a gift for the audience; all might seem inconsequential. But added together, they are the small moments that make momentous change for a society who learns from watching.

We should honor the link between strong creative and strong ethical vision. This doesn’t mean we regulate, officiate, or award enlightening messages. It certainly doesn't mean I hold that a person is more ethical than the rest simply because he has a job on the creative side. And you know what? Not all advertising should be of the social change variety. As in life, there should be moments of seriousness, of goofy humor, of information well-told without a noble or positive moment, even a bit of innuendo. We need Burger King and Axe and The Onion to laugh at and push boundaries.

The stuff that works in this socially aware fashion is more intuitive, more authentic than that suggests. It seems to me that it's part of a syndrome that considers the "what could be" as sacred. That’s important for the future of this industry.

In considering how broad cultural messages work, we should acknowledge that empowering the culture with positive advertising can be a smart brand approach. We realize that this powerful tool we wield should be used for righteousness sometimes, as well as being used for effectiveness. Creative director and 12 director Jelly Helm said it beautifully a few years ago when he called doing good a revolutionary advertising idea whose time had come. Good for the culture, smart for the industry, inspiring for individuals.

I teach advertising creativity. I have watched hundreds – oh, the years! maybe even thousands – of students develop into writers and art directors of note. As we work in the classroom together, I've observed a distinct set of people ready to do this type of work of character. I also know that when they proceed onward from school to industry, they're often smacked with what researchers have labeled the "moral muteness" of people doing the daily grind of agency work. Some creatives succumb – if indeed they ever had the need to change the world with their work – to the overwhelming myopia of the status quo.

But I believe there's hope. I'm foolish enough to think that somewhere in the daily crunch of producing stuff, there are talented people who stop and think: what can I do to make the world better? And I'm wise enough to know that those creative people want essentially to do good. Our job – as industry professionals and as educators – is to see that somewhere, every day, the beyond obligation spirit is rewarded.

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After 18 years at the University of Texas in Texas Creative land, Deborah Morrison has been named the Chambers Distinguished Professor in Advertising at the University of Oregon. She and University of Colorado professor Brett Robbs have a book in the works, "Launch: Preparing for an Advertising Career." She is a member of the Board of The One Club for Art & Copy, and she believes advertising can be an agent of positive social change.

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