5 ad campaigns which created the proverbial ‘dent in the universe’

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Recently, AgencySpy published an internal memo of an ad agency, where the CEO makes a reference to advertising providing a chance to create ideas which ‘make a dent in the universe’. That phrase has been attributed to Steve Jobs in the context of a company’s mission. But what does the phrase, ‘dent in the universe’ mean? Is it about creating something which makes a profound positive impact in people’s lives across the world? Or a large swathe of people in a country? Or at least impacts a small sphere of people? Interpretations can vary. I can imagine an invention or service making such an impact. A short and not-so-exhaustive list of recent (past 50 years or so) such developments which made a dent in the universe would be:

– Internet
– Google
– Touch screen
– iPhone
– Aggregate services like Uber
– Boeing 777

In a 2013 article, The Richest lists these as life improving innovations of the 2000s:

– Surgical Robotics
– RFID/Contactless Payment Technology
– YouTube
– E-Readers
– Skype
– iPod

In a 2012 article, Popular Science lists these in The Top 25 Innovations of the Last 25 Years:

– Tivo, 1999
– Toyota PRIUS, 1997, 2003, 2009
– Protease Inhibitors, 1996
– Mosaic XS web browser, 1994

Does a new ad campaign idea, however creative, for a car, internet service, beer or shampoo really fit into such a list? I think not.

Advertising sure has influence but its parameters for effectiveness are ‘different – related to commerce mostly. Effective ad campaigns increase sales (in the short run or long term), change mindsets about an issue or company and sometimes change behaviours. The last outcome, which could be closer to ‘creating a dent in the universe’ could be about effecting a large scale, societal behavioural change. Such campaigns are few and far between. Most advertising is about mundane stuff – urging people to choose one brand of toothpaste, floor cleaner, toilet paper, cola or mosquito repellant over the other. Ad agency folks often behave as if this process is one of ‘life and death’ – as if they are finding a cure for cancer.

Ad agency folks go through their careers giving way too much importance to their output. They take themselves and their work far too seriously – whereas the one who it is aimed at hardly pays any attention. Sure, advertising is an important function and plays a critical role in commerce. It helps establishment of businesses, brands. It helps consumers make informed choices in their purchases. Sure, one must take one’s profession seriously and give more than what is expected at work. But agonising over relatively trivial things is part and parcel of ad agency life. ‘Should the model holds product in the right or left hand? Should she wear a blue or yellow outfit? are common points of discussion in ad agencies. The consumer hardly pays any attention to the blood, sweat and tears which went behind the making of a hair dolour ad. This is not to suggest that advertising folks need to take their jobs lightly – they certainly need to lighten up. Ad campaigns which qualify as making a dent in the universe are rare – most of them are simply doing a job in the context of an everyday, mundane commercial transaction.

Are there campaigns which made a positive difference to society? Here are a few which come to mind:

1. TAC Melbourne: road safety [PDF]

TAC Road Safety

Campaigns extolling people to not drink and drive are common. In India, ‘don’t drink and drive’ banners are put up during Christmas and New Year’s eve right along side wishes for those festivities. Such messages [‘Don’t drink and drive. Happy New Year!] do nothing to prevent drunk driving as the message becomes a blind spot. While there are effective messaging efforts on a small scale, drunk driving messaging needs a shake up. In that context, I love the campaign initiated by Traffic Accident Commission, Melbourne, Australia. It starts off with a memorable tag line which was direct, hard hitting and called a spade a spade. The hallmarks of the campaign were:

– it took the issue head on and did not couch it under niceties. The campaign deliberately ’shocked’ the viewer and shamed the drunk driver for his decision
– the cost of a drunk driving accident was dramatised in an emotional manner showcasing how families and loved ones are affected due an act of bravado
– various reasons for road accidents – over speeding, drugs, ‘just one over’ were researched and addressed in specific campaigns with actionable to-do’s (reduce speed by 10 km/hr)

The campaign was effective in bringing accidents down in Victoria:

On 10 December, 1989 the first TAC commercial went to air. In that year the road toll was 776 – by 2012 it had fallen to 303.

Some of the landmark commercials include:

Aside from drunk driving the campaign touched upon other aspects which affect road safety. Some of the hard hitting slogans and print ads include:

On 10 December, 1989 the first TAC commercial went to air. In that year the road toll was 776 – by 2012 it had fallen to 303.

2. Maggi 2-minute noodles

In 1985, when Maggi noodles entered the Indian market, the mission was not just to launch a new product but to change a snacking habit. Over the last 30 years, through a combination of product, marketing, PR and advertising efforts, Maggi noodles has become part of the great Indian snacking routine. It is not uncommon to see Maggi being served as after-school snack, a dinner replacement and more. A small part of the credit should go to the 2-minute noodles positioning which acted as a trigger for this revolution. The subliminal message of convenience sat well with the Indian middle class which was beginning to get time poor. Subsequent trastitioning into a ‘health+taste’ platform established Maggi almost a a generic name for noodles.

3. Pulse Polio

The role of Amitabh Bachchan – angrily chiding, coaxing users to help get rid of polio, is often cited as a great example of how celebrity endorsements can play a critical role in marketing.

Pandey, 60, winner of over 800 advertising awards, said that out of all his works, his all-time favourite campaign is the polio eradication drive. “This was the greatest campaign for me ever as the results achieved were even greater.” The government’s drive endorsed by Bachchan saw India become 100% polio free, a major achievement considering most other social ads yield mixed results. The advertisement saw an old but angry Bachchan reach out to the nooks and corners of the nation, chiding women for not having administered their children the two drops of vaccine.

4. Balbir Pasha (AIDS campaign)

This campaign, an innovative approach to reducing HIV/AIDS prevalence through targeted mass media communications in Mumbai, India created Balbir Pasha, a fictional character. This character was portrayed across various communications channels in intriguing scenarios, serving as a behavioral model for consumers to relate to and empathize with. Using this character, HIV/ AIDS messages were conveyed in an approachable and familiar manner, rather than the didactic approach that previous HIV/AIDS communication campaigns have unsuccessfully tried.

Results: [PDF]

– Increase in proportion of individuals reporting last-time condom usage with commercial sex workers from 87% to 92%
– Threefold increase in retail sales of condoms in the red light district
– Increase in Voluntary Counselling and Treatment services usage

5. Swachch Bharat [Clean India]

The issue of cleanliness and hygiene is a complex one in India. Public defecation, lack of toilets, littering, open sewages, defacing of monument and so many related issues all contribute to the problem. So when the Price Minister of India made a call for ‘Swachch Bharat’ (Clean India), it was a welcome acknowledgement of the monumental task at hand. The mere announcement has not made India clean overnight. It will probably take a whole generation’s life span to turn around the situation in India. Construction of toilets in rural areas & schools, treatment of industrial effluents, cleaning of rivers, urban waste management are just some of the Himalayan tasks ahead. Needless to say, the efforts are yet to show results and may take years to do so. But the rallying call has caught the imagination of many in India, especially the young. There is awareness among many about the cause and individuals are coming together to make a difference. The recent cleaning up efforts of the Versova beach, Varanasi ghats and many more are examples of action on the ground. While Swachch Bharat is not strictly an advertising campaign the ‘idea’ is a powerful one which has the potential to mobilise public and turn it into a citizen movement. Of course, the state machinery has to do its bit in education of the general public and management of waste.

Any other campaigns which made a dent in the universe? Do comment in.

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