Trillium News

It Seems to Me

Now You Can Hire an Advertising Agency to Spread Your Social Responsibility Messages

I have been a journalist for virtually all my working life, except when I took up residence at the J. Walter Thompson Company from 1963 through 1967, then the largest and one of the oldest advertising agencies in the land. I didn’t write any ads. I put out a weekly internal newsletter and represented the agency to the press.
I had the run of the place, and it was a fun job. Every time a new account came in, there was a big celebration. Once, during a blackout in New York City, an art director yelled out: “Uh oh, I guess we lost the Ford account.”
Thompson was obsessed at the time with trying to keep up with the cultural and social trends of the 1960s. A conservative, stodgy institution (for example, the agency refused to handle any wine or liquor accounts), JWT was uncomfortable with the new art scenes, sexual mores and the civil rights movement.
One of the reasons I was there was to help move the company into the modern world, and it occurred to me that it might be smart for JWT to get clients to start social responsibility programs or at least adopt a social responsibility stance in their ads so that they would be more in sync with the activists demanding social changes. That idea had the impact of a feather on a steel girder. JWT, I was informed, had enough to do introducing the new Ford Mustang, getting people to take pictures using Kodak film and burnishing the image of Pan American World Airways without fooling around with la-di-da concepts like social responsibility.
So I resigned from the agency and began publishing a newsletter, Business & Society. Maybe those guys knew what they were talking about. My newsletter’s circulation peaked at 750, and I shut it down in 1974.
You can imagine how intrigued I was this summer to learn about JWT’s unit, Ethos JWT, which develops social responsibility campaigns for clients. Of course many things have changed since 1967. JWT no longer wants to be called J.Walter Thompson – it’s just JWT now. And it is now part of the London-based media conglomerate, the WPP Group.
When Ethos JWT was set up four years ago, its clients came from the nonprofit sector. But now it has tapped into a much richer vein: designing and shaping social responsibility campaigns for corporations. Among its clients are the big British bank HSBC, the giant pharmaceutical house Merck and the Canadian restaurant chain, Tim Hortons. Business has been brisk. In the first half of 2007 billings at Ethos JWT were up 40% over 2006.
Ethos JWT does more than craft ads. The Wall Street Journal noted that it reviews the operations of a client and figures out how social responsibility programs can be integrated into its business. One of its assignments for Tim Hortons is to develop a program to educate farmers in Colombia, Brazil and Guatemala on how to take better care of their lands. The goal is to leverage social responsibility as a marketing advantage, distinguishing companies from their competitors.
It’s not exactly new for companies to portray themselves as paragons of virtue. This tactic has been particularly deployed to expunge a malodorous reputation. Dow Chemical is currently engaged in such a crusade. The company still known for the production of napalm and Agent Orange (even though it hasn’t made those products for more than 25 years) is running big color spreads in magazines to trumpet its new philosophy, called the Human Element. By looking at life through the eyes of the Human Element, the Dow ads say, “You see things, for the first time, quite clearly…. You see the potential for solving human problems. New thinking and new solutions for health, housing, food and water.”
I don’t have any doubt, from what I have seen and heard, that Dow is a far better company today, with a heightened sense of environmental sensitivity, but its previous record lingers. And that’s the issue in ads touting social responsibility. How much is rhetoric and how much substance?
I still believe that there’s nothing wrong in urging companies to take a stand for social responsibility in its public pronouncements. But they had better have something to back it up. Unlike those earlier times, today we have a research infrastructure to authenticate claims and hold companies accountable.
Good luck, Ethos JWT.