(Corrects spelling of Grey executive’s name in fourth paragraph of story published Jan. 10)
Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, the U.K’s. best-selling tabloid known for photos of topless women and celebrity sex scandals, is promoting goodwill and funny cats in its latest ad campaign to wipe away the January blues.
Under its “Big Smile Giveaway” campaign, newspaper readers will be sent on holiday, treated to free tea and even have their road tolls paid by The Sun’s Smile Squad, which will visit towns across the U.K. For owner News Corp. (NWSA), the effort may be the latest attempt to restore the tattered image of Murdoch’s media empire dragged down by phone-hacking charges and the arrests of top executives.
The tactics are also part of a push by advertising agencies to highlight their clients’ social and environmental initiatives. With the corporate world reeling from scandals and missteps by executives, companies from condom makers to soda manufacturers are trying to keep brands above the fray, handing ad agencies a new type of marketing method that is boosting their global $497 billion business.
“For an organization that has a reputational trust issue this type of marketing is going to be critical,” said Leo Rayman, head of planning for WPP Plc (WPP)’s Grey London, which helped create the Sun’s campaign.
In similar moves, Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc (RB/)’s Durex donates condoms to Haiti, Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap brand promotes handwashing in Africa and Coca-Cola Co. (KO) reduces waste by using bottles made with plant-based material.
Companies’ social and environmental efforts increasingly play a role in consumers’ decisions on which products and services to buy, said Ian Maude, a media analyst at Enders Analysis in London.
“The feeling now is that in order to win you’ve got to give back a bit and show that to your customers,” he said. “You don’t have to win by screwing everyone else.”
In the U.S., 56 percent of Internet users said they bought a brand because proceeds went to a good cause or the brand supported a particular cause, according to a survey by AYTM, a San Francisco-based market researcher.
“It’s definitely a significant trend that’s growing, and part of it has to do with transparency,” said Simeon Duckworth, head of business planning at Mindshare, a WPP-owned marketing company that works with Ford Motor Co. (F), Unilever and HSBC Holdings Plc.
The Sun’s 50-second TV spot for “Big Smile Giveaway” began airing Jan. 1. The ad features a young girl singing and dancing about in her room encouraging viewers to “smile through the pain” that is January and to focus on things that make life fun: boy bands, silly puns, funny cats and two-for-ones.
Executives and companies are being held more accountable these days with the rise of social media, which has placed power in the hands of consumers who can influence their friends on Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. (FB)’s websites or even galvanize masses like at last year’s Arab Spring uprisings.
“The behavior of governments and businesses led the world to the edge of collapse,” said David Jones, CEO at Havas SA (HAV), France’s second-biggest ad company. “People are now empowered through social media to sanction or support business.”
A company that is responsible and showing that to consumers will do better in business, said Jones, who advised U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron during his election campaign.
Ad agencies are also benefiting from political initiatives seeking to promote peace.
Saatchi & Saatchi, owned by Publicis Groupe SA (PUB), the third- largest advertising company, was behind the “Blood Relations” short film that draws attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by featuring bereaved families on both sides donating blood to each other.
“In the backdrop of economic hardship there’s not much joy to be had and it’s amazing to feel you’ve been part of something that has such potential in the world,” said Robert Senior, Saatchi & Saatchi’s head of Europe, Middle East and Africa.
The attempt to appeal to consumers’ emotions also works in the corporate world.
Proctor & Gamble Co. (PG)’s spot for Pantene shampoo, which follows a chubby Russian girl as she overcomes obstacles to become a champion gymnast, was also created by the Grey Group and was shown online only, with P&G pledging 5 million rubles ($165,000) to Russia’s Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team should it receive 5 million views. To date it’s got more than 5.3 million views.
“We felt that we needed to bring more local relevance for consumers,” said Tanja Riemann, a brand manager for P&G in Moscow. “The Olympic ad is very Russian from the girl living in a small village to her relationship with her grandmother.”
Unilever’s Domestos cleaner is sponsoring a Toilet Academy, which was designed to bring attention to poor sanitation conditions in parts of the world.
“Making marketing noble again is possible,” said Marc Matthieu, senior vice president for marketing at the company. ’
At Coca-Cola, an ad spot called “Daniel and His Mother” features the son of a polymer scientist who helped invent the company’s plant-based PlantBottle packaging, extolling how much his mom cares about the environment.
The recession that began in 2007 “drove out these issues at companies,” said Scott Vitters, general manager of Coca- Cola’s PlantBottle group. The packaging for plastic bottles, made from up to 30 percent plant-based material, is credited with increasing sales at the company’s Dasani bottled water brand in North America by 11 percent in 2011.
The emergence of social media means a company can go from “hero to zero” in seconds if they are caught contradicting themselves,’ Saatchi & Saatchi’s Senior said.
Still, even as companies tout sustainability, they aren’t charities and topics such as profit margins and investor returns remain clearly at the forefront of business, said Hamish Kinniburgh, global strategy officer at the Universal McCann ad agency.
Socially aware ads aren’t an “uncommercial activity,” he said. “Ultimately advertising is about selling and delivering to clients’ bottom lines.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kristen Schweizer in London at firstname.lastname@example.org