Sunday, 19 May 2024
Sunday, 19 May 2024

Harnessing advertising for social change

By Florencia Lujani

Advertising for charities holds profound potential beyond fundraising; it serves as a formidable tool for reshaping narratives and creating the perception changes that are more likely to make people support your cause in the long term.

Iconic brands use brand advertising to build specific associations, for example, Coca-Cola and the American Dream or Waitrose and quality food. They have etched themselves into our collective consciousness through storytelling. Likewise, charities and NGOs can and should use advertising to redefine how people perceive and engage with critical issues.

Narrative Transformation

Through strategic advertising, organisations can create shifts which reframe perceptions and foster empathy for a particular cause or issue.

One example is the changed perception of veganism. Once relegated to the sidelines as a niche lifestyle that was seen as strict and inaccessible, it underwent a metamorphosis. It moved into the mainstream by being rebranded as ‘plant-based’ or embracing flexibility via ‘flexitarianism’, which makes trying out vegan foods accessible.

This transformation was not solely propelled by the virtues of animal welfare or environmentalism but by recasting veganism as inclusive and appealing. Advertising played a pivotal role, rebranding plant-based diets as a delicious and healthy choice, rather than a restrictive ideology.

Rather than starting with the issue, the narrative started with what people wanted, which is delicious food. By working out a way of solving a problem or delivering a solution – a cultural shift can be created.

Cultural moments have the capacity to humanise complex issues, challenging narratives of fear and hostility. The narrative around migrants has historically been dehumanising. But when the image of that little boy on the beach went viral, it reframed everything. People understood it’s not about a demonised mob it’s about individuality. It’s about children.

Amnesty International leveraged long-form storytelling to create saliency around the health effects of damp homes to life. The heartbreaking twist that this ‘drama’ was, in fact, a real-life event, humanised the issue and resulted in PR as well as advertising chatter which drove awareness, and increased donations as a result, although this was not the key message.

Personal & relatable

We can use advertising facts to change perceptions about an issue. For example, breaking complex issues like climate change down into much smaller topics that relate to people’s day-to-day lives, and the personal benefit that action creates. By reframing issues around personal, place-based, or community benefits, and creating empathy, charities and NGOs can encourage people to care about something that’s important to them. Once this has been achieved, they’re primed to donate money in the longer term.

I have seen the power of well-executed climate communication campaigns first-hand. For example, our campaign for climate action organisation Possible, about the benefits of car-free cities, used trusted messengers from Birmingham to increase relatability and effectiveness.

Positive associations with Possible saw an uplift of 27% to 47%, and sentiment around ‘neighbourhoods should be for people not cars’ saw an uplift of 40% to 59%, with a 22% increase in willingness to drive less and take public transport more regularly. When information is delivered in a way that resonates with the audience, it can drive positive change.

Traditional trusted media

Many people automatically assume that investing in digital advertising is the best approach to make behavioural change. In my experience, a 70:30 mix of traditional and digital advertising is the most impactful. It’s important to include out-of-home and print, as local billboards and local news are really trusted. According to a compelling recent Ofcom study on trust in media, far fewer people trust online sources.

Many out-of-home sites are owned by public bodies, so it’s also a way to invest in the local community and local media, as well as support local news which is often struggling. By investing in local news, organisations are supporting the plurality of media, as opposed to funnelling everything into social media platforms, which are profiting from hate speech and misinformation.

Advertising empowers charities to reclaim control over their narratives, countering the deluge of disinformation online. By curating messages and collaborating with trusted media outlets, organisations can safeguard the integrity of their campaigns while nurturing community ties and supporting local journalism. By investing budgets in a mix of traditional and digital media, it’s often more effective and aligned to your organisation’s values.

Social change

As communicators who care passionately about the issues we work on, NGOs often start with the issue and assume that everyone will care in the same way they do. But a more inclusive approach is to start with the audience we want to speak to and explore why they might care about that issue. This is where marketing and campaigning strategies differ, and where we can learn from each other.

In the quest for social change, advertising can be a catalyst for changing cultural norms and encouraging action. Initiatives like Sky Ocean Rescue speaking out against single-use plastics demonstrates how strategic messaging, bolstered by influential and trusted voices including news presenters and sports personalities, can galvanise public sentiment and create tangible change. Sky’s campaign was a real cultural moment. People who perhaps wouldn’t get involved in green initiatives were suddenly very passionate and well-informed about single-use plastic use.

In fact, Ad Net Zero Action 5 calls for the advertising industry’s creativity to be used to drive positive change around climate, in every sector of the economy. Action 5 is focused on harnessing advertising’s power to support behaviour change. Initiatives like #ChangetheBrief are recommended to provide advertisers with more sustainable solutions to their campaign briefs.

Making it the norm

Sadly, topics like climate change and human rights face attempts to polarise it or make supporters akin to terrorists or extremists. In the wake of such disinformation, advertising can help us to set new frames which appeal to more people, and to counter narratives effectively.

One great example is Macmillan Cancer Care. The charity has created a cultural phenomenon to aspire to. It’s normalised for people to support the organisation through fun runs, hosting coffee mornings and raising money in very accepted ways, around a difficult issue that affects us all. It’s not polarised. It’s not politicised. It’s something that we can and should all support. Could we find the equivalent for climate action?

At its core advertising can help to combat polarisation, making it very normal to care about big issues. It’s about big systemic change as well as individual action. We need everyone to support systemic change.

Advertising can serve as a conduit for social transformation, offering charities and NGOs a platform to amplify their voices and create meaningful change. By harnessing the power of storytelling and embracing diverse media channels, organisations can transcend fundraising goals, inspire empathy and harness collective action.

As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, advertising emerges not only as a means of persuasion but as a powerful tool to challenge assumptions and reshape our culture and communities for the better.

Florencia Lujani is the Strategy Director at ACT Climate Labs. For more information visit:


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