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There’s a debate that’s been going on since the fifth century BCE when Aeschylus wrote the first Greek drama.

That debate is about the proper role of art in society. Should it merely entertain, or should it also instruct? In modern times, we may wonder about the purpose of advertising. Some brands entertain us as part of the sales process. Others skip all that and simply bludgeon us with their sales proposition. But very few brands attempt to say anything for the good of the world.
There’s a separate class of ads that fall under the category of “public service.” Rather than selling something, public service ads aim to sell a point of view intended for our welfare, the welfare of others, or for the welfare of society in general.
Public service advertising officially began in 1941. James Webb Young, cofounder of the ad agency Young and Rubicam, proposed an interesting idea to peers J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett: an organization that could mobilize the entire ad industry to serve the public good. That organization, named the Ad Council, has been at work ever since. The Ad Council has produced memorable campaigns from Smokey the Bear to “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” for the United Negro College Fund to “This is Your Brain on Drugs.”
It’s tempting to view most advertising as brand-focused narcissism. But occasionally there are campaigns whose aim is to make us better people, either as exclusively public service messages or campaigns that blend a higher message with something they want us to buy—a beer, for instance. What follows is a dissection of two campaigns created in hopes that if humankind is to evolve and not regress, we have to examine our long-held beliefs and be open to points of view that may be radically different from our own. Both these campaigns broke on social media, demonstrating that it is possible to create a substantial buzz without a substantial network TV budget.
“Assume That I Can” was created by the Italian organization Coor Down and released on social media to coincide with World Down Syndrome Awareness Day on March 21. In a bold way, this spot challenges the notion that people with Down syndrome should be seen and not heard. The star of the show is 22-year-old actress Madison Tevlin. We first see her in a lively bar as she addresses a female bartender with, “Hey bartender, you assume that I cannot drink a margarita so you don’t serve me a margarita.” The bartender gives her a patronizing look and slides her a bottle of orange soda. Tevlin responds with the line, “Your assumption becomes reality.” As the spot progresses, she challenges other assumptions—that Down adults cannot live on their own, that they cannot learn Shakespeare. Then we see our heroine shatter those assumptions by drinking a margarita, living on her own, reciting Shakespeare, and perhaps most provocatively, having sex. Some of it—like the sex, though tastefully handled—feels shocking. But the real shock for the viewer is realizing how right she is, how when we project our assumptions on others, they become that person’s reality. It all ends with Tevlin stating, “Assume that I can, so maybe I will.” We now feel obliged to become enablers of a bigger life for people with Down syndrome. The lead actress shared in an interview with CNN that when she was born, doctors gave her parents a litany of all the things their child would never be able to do. Now she talks about how much joy it has given her to prove those doctors were wrong.
The second campaign for your consideration is from Heineken and the creative minds at Publicis. “Worlds Apart – An Experiment” also premiered on social media back in 2017, but it would seem that its message is as timely as ever. We’re taken into a stark, brightly-lit warehouse space. Three pairs of participants appear in succession. From the outset, none are aware of the nature of the experiment. A loud buzzer echoes through the warehouse and an unseen Big Brother begins issuing instructions. Copy on the screen tells us that the experimenters have paired these participants as “two strangers divided by their beliefs.” The teams are a left-leaning woman and an ultra-conservative man, a self-declared male chauvinist and a feminist, and two men at opposite ends of the climate change issue—one believing that we need to do more, the other believing it’s all a big hoax.
The spot then unfolds as a four-act play. In Act One, “The Icebreaker,” the pair unpacks and assembles wooden bar stools. In the next segment, “Q&A,” the pairs get to know each other by answering from a list of questions like, “Describe what it is like to be you in five adjectives.” At this stage the participants begin to step over barriers and get to know each other as people. In Act Three, called “Bridge Building,” the pairs assemble an L-shaped structure that begins to resemble a bar. Not until Act Four do we see the product. In the final segment called “The Decision,” the participants are instructed to take bottles of Heineken from a chiller and place them on proscribed marks on the bar top. Then comes a kind of “outing,” where each gets to watch a video of his or her partner taped before they met that exposes their partner’s often blatant and inflexible views about climate, sexism, and gender equality respectively. Big Brother comes on the loudspeaker and issues his final instruction: “You now have a choice. You can go or stay and discuss your differences over a beer.” Which is where that cold Heineken comes in. Despite their differences, all choose to stay and have a beer.
This campaign was a bit of a left turn for Heineken, which has historically promoted its beer through humorous ads and high-profile sports sponsorships. It’s also worth noting that this work was in development in 2016 during Brexit, the referendum in which the UK eventually chose to withdraw from the European Union. At the time, Britain was divided as never before.
Several metrics testify to the success of “Worlds Apart.” It got 11.5 million views on YouTube. Post analysis revealed that seventy-eight percent of viewers now agreed that Heineken stood for openness. Eighty percent agreed that Heineken brings people together. But the best revelation of all was the uptick in sales. In a market where theirs and other lager brands had lagged (sorry), steadily losing marketshare to craft brews, Heineken saw their sales increase almost twelve percent during the campaign, double the growth for the lager category.
It took courage for Heineken to launch this campaign. Although David Ogilvy once said “Only amateurs use short copy,” long form advertising feels increasingly risky in a culture that prefers tweets over Tolstoy. However, this bottom up marketing effort proved that ads with substance not only get attention, they can also increase sales. It also suggests that when called on to access their better natures, at least some people answer in the affirmative.
I’m reminded of that well-known quote from Alexander Pope: “To err is human; to forgive divine.” I’ll append Pope by saying that to be willing to engage constructively in spite of our differences, that’s how we create a future together. If there is a higher purpose in advertising, this is it.

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