Advertising: It's Not Just for Selling Stuff

Of all the contributions to society that advertising can claim -- and for many people, it's not a long list -- one that's generally ignored is its contribution to tolerance and understanding. I don't mean ads like "It's a Small World After All" and "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke." I mean appeals that go beyond the safety of feel-good lyrics to raise an eyebrow and stir a thought.

The classic example is Bill Bernbach's 1960 campaign for Levy's rye bread. Even if you never saw the ads, you probably know the tagline: "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's." The ads had an all-American cast. That is: an Asian man, an American Indian, a Catholic altar boy, an Irish cop and a young African American. But the Jewish connection was the grabber. (To make sure that connection wasn't obscured, Bernbach also pushed the company to change its name from Levy's Real Rye to Levy's Real Jewish Rye.)

Those ads may not have been subtle, but I believe they helped lead to a subtle shift in attitudes toward Jews in America. And that tradition continues. As one of my colleagues recently wrote in Adweek:

"Put aside all of the criticism that marketers suffer for glorifying consumerism, and there is a genuine truth in the bridges brands have built over the years. Think of McDonald's and single moms and working moms in the early '90s; Volvo, Absolut and Ikea, among others, and nontraditional couples; and the Virginia Slims campaign that 'codified' women's advance to the mainstream ('You've come a long way, baby')."

We don't see a lot of social or religious themes in advertising today because we're just too polarized -- direct engagement of almost any such theme sends some advocacy group into action. More than the aging process has been at work since, for instance, a very young Woody Allen interviewed a movie-star-handsome Billy Graham. You can see why that interview is making its way around the Web; it's a funny, open, totally engaging chat, starting with Woody asking Rev. Graham about his "favorite commandment." The agnostic and the Christian spar, debate, pretend to try and convert one another -- you watch this three-decade-old conversation with wonder. It couldn't happen now.

So when it comes to making advertising that touches on social and religious identity, I'm not surprised we see nothing with the punch of the Levy's ads. But that's not to say all agencies and advertisers shy away from the challenge.

Here's a challenge my agency recently confronted: How do you sell shampoo in Saudi Arabia, a culturally conservative society with constraints on how women can be portrayed? And by constraints, I mean that a female face cannot be photographed in the same frame as a woman's hair. For some creatives, that would be a non-start. At JWT, we simply decided that wisdom lay in honoring the existing culture and making ads that did not give offense. Sometimes it doesn't do for an ad agency to play agitator.

Our colleagues in the Middle East have a deep understanding of Muslim culture and Muslim consumers. We wanted to contribute to the body of thinking and utilize this understanding in the U.S. and Europe. So earlier this year, we began a study that explored the attitudes of Muslim consumers in the U.S. and the U.K. We wanted to chart the connection between Islam and the consumer choices of American and British Muslims; we wanted to find out which brands and products Muslims are more likely to favor, which they avoid and the factors that determine their preferences.

Seems like a pointless exercise? After all, there aren't many Muslims in the U.K. and America; that's a lot of time, energy and money spent on a narrow segment. But on closer inspection, we saw that American and British Muslims are a fast-growing segment; they're demographically vigorous, with high birth rates and an expanding sense of identity. In short, they're worthy of the attention of global brands.

We have much learning to do about marketing to Muslims in our own country. We'll approach the challenge with sensitivity -- I suspect we'll err on the side of caution. But I'm sure there's something we will take away from this effort that we can, in one form or another, use in creating advertising for consumers in the Middle East. I believe it's worth the effort, and not just for business reasons. Products that we share can play a role in bridging divides -- and we all know how shared experience can give people who don't think they have anything in common the basis for a conversation.

While some credit Ronald Reagan for the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think we should also give credit to Bruce Springsteen and Levi's and Coke and all the other American products that seemed so glorious to people on the sad side of the Wall. Their hunger for consumer goods merged with their hunger for freedom, with a very happy result.

That's a formula we should want to replicate around the world. To do it, advertising will have to study different cultures intensely. Well, why not? If we are brilliant students, we may be able to do more than sell shampoo -- we may be able to build some bridges.