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A Kinder, Gentler Brand

Now that the day-after (and week-after) quarterbacking on the Super Bowl and its advertisers has died down (one would hope), let’s reflect on where we go from here.

Without a doubt, this year a number of brands decided to turn away from crass commercialism in favor of empathy. Yes, there was the traditional Clydesdale/puppy interaction from Budweiser that warms the heart, but other marketers also chose to take square aim at the heart rather than the head.

This is interesting because traditionally, the ads that have gained national attention and have been part of our collective consciousness have involved humor: the Darth Vader kid, the talking frogs, etc.

But over the span of three and a half hours of one of the most gripping Super Bowl games in years, we were yanked into an emotionally uncomfortable place as Coca-Cola and Always took a stand against bullying and derogatory behavior online and off; and Nissan and Dove celebrated dads as caring and sensitive in addition to the traditional hard-working profile, with the former using Harry Chapin’s tear-inducing song, “Cat’s In the Cradle,” and the latter showing the softer side of what makes a dad.

In one of the most surprising ads, Microsoft told stories about empowering people to improve the lives of others. And the typically tactless GoDaddy empathized with small-business owners as it indicated its role in helping them to do what they’re passionate about. McDonald’s tested out “Pay with Lovin” as a way to recognize the company’s refreshed “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign and as a reminder to focus on those around us. And Weight Watchers prompted Americans to unabashedly care about how they treat themselves. Even the NFL practiced concern for humanity with its PSA about domestic violence.

But beyond airing these deeper messages about caring on one day out of the year, where are brands going? Does this indicate a shift to a wider strategy that will encompass more mindfulness and perhaps even nod toward social responsibility?

Trolling, bullying and distasteful dialogue have happened online for years, yet in recent months, it seems to have reached a peak, with vitriolic comments—particularly on Facebook and in the comment sections on news sites—that have been fueled by political differences. And brands are no strangers to haters and detractors.

We need to make a decision, as a society, about what we find acceptable and what is considered beyond the pale of decent human behavior, whether or not someone has an identifiable name or profile online. Marketers with a significant online presence have a responsibility, at the very least, to hold their communities responsible for what they say and do.

The brands that will stand out are those that venture to go beyond what’s required and make a stand—not just on their own Facebook pages and websites, but also in their business strategies. Savvy customers will be able to discern between platitudes and commitment.

While the world may have room for yet more brand extensions, it won’t tolerate simulated empathy.

Scott Monty is executive vice president of strategy at Newton, Mass.-based PR firm SHIFT Communications and a member of the AMA’s board of directors. Formerly, Monty served as global digital and multimedia communications manager at Ford Motor Co.